In defence of the humanities

Confession: I just finished reading Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and I have no idea what I just read.

If that doesn’t sound ‘meta’ enough of a lead to entice further reading, I’ll add in an extra pinch of shamefaced nihilism for good measure: I don’t know why I read it in the first place.

In fact, I don’t know why I read half of the books I do for my degree. Knowing how some medieval visionary mystic saw God in a trance is no token for my personal salvation, understanding the mechanics of Austenian irony won’t find me a Captain Wentworth as future husband, and deciphering the ‘semiotic praxis’ (or other postmodern claptrap) of Bella Italia’s menu certainly won’t help me bargain for a cheaper meal. To my more practical peers who prefer the laboratory to the library, a degree that entails endless reading of ‘story books’ after which you lyricise about how you ‘feel’ seems gratuitous at best and self-indulgent at worst. After all, these people are either on their way to NASA stardom or MSF-ish altruism, gearing themselves for the noble cause of contributing to human progress and third-world improvement as we novelist manqués obsess over the inconsequential le mot juste a la Flaubert.

This impression must resonate all the more under the current climate of austerity, when the coalition government has no qualms about cutting research funding for the humanities in favour of STEM subjects. At the risk of sounding too apocalyptic, one fact appears increasingly true:

The study of the humanities is in crisis.

An academic celebrity like Stanley Fish may insist that “whatever does or does not happen in the ‘real world’ is not the issue; the issue is what happens in the academic world”, but such an insular view is likely to be the exception rather than the rule, as most scholars today are aware that the humanistic industry must, for the sake of its ongoing existence, find what John Guillory calls a “legitimation narrative” to maintain its social relevance. Gone are the halcyon heydays of 80s postmodernism, as fate’s sleight of hand has turned the English professor – once the rock ‘n roll darling of the academic intelligentsia – into an archetypal Randian villain who leeches off the toil of others by always criticising and never creating (vide Ellsworth Toohey in The Fountainhead). Since the corporatist society in which we live favours a Gradgrindery approach to understanding ‘value’, profit-making has become gospel and statistics its default yardstick.  We seek consolation in numbers because its absolute nature eliminates the mental labour of considering alternatives, and we proclaim data to be the source of wisdom because hard ‘facts’ offer the illusion of ‘truth’. As we are forced to confront growing figures of graduate unemployment, the Arnoldian injunction of literature offering “sweetness and light” suddenly seems nothing more than woolly waffle than serious cultural critique, removed from all parameters of harsh reality.

Yet defend the study of humanities we must, and I make two arguments for its case: first, it is not so much the economic ‘value’ as it is the cultural importance of humanistic learning that society should emphasise; second, the ‘critical consciousness’ that it cultivates in university students is crucial to responsible citizenship at large.

I remember going to Professor Helen Small’s lectures on Victorianism back in first year, and being bowled over by her intellectual brilliance. Yet I take slight issue with the title of her recent book – The Value of the Humanities (Oxford, 2013), as the connotation of numerical worth in the word “value” seems to concede the very grounds she aims to contend. It is an enlightening work, wherein she argues that we should “keep instrumentalism at a clear remove from our language”, and to give in “as little as possible to the formulaic language of the bureaucratic statistician”, which is why I find her lexical choice curious, if not ironic. For too long, the idea that ‘social utility’ is contingent upon financial returns has prevailed in the public mindset, but this is a dangerous misconception because it reduces individuals into mere economic agents and revenue mills. This may explain Stefan Collini’s woe as expressed in his insightful LRB essay ‘Sold Out’, namely that “scholars now spend a considerable, and increasing, part of their working day accounting for their activities in the managers’ terms”.

In an era that allows the principle of efficiency and the legitimisation of greed to run amok, we demand immediate gratification as spiritual reassurance: seeing tech stocks rise trumps mulling over a literary classic in the adrenaline stakes any day. What’s unfortunate is that the government champions this mentality by way of a false analogy in practice, as it arbitrarily imposes the standards of one social pillar (economics) on another that serves a different, but just as significant, purpose (culture). It is as if someone is asking you to evaluate the taste of marmite in terms of Nutella; the humanities can’t win, because the odds are stacked against it in the policymakers’ ‘priority hierarchy’. In fact, it’s hardly surprising that defenders of this field eventually find themselves stuck in a justificatory cul-de-sac, as they are forced to face the impossible task of quantifying the unquantifiable, struggling to describe something that by nature defies the prescribed language of description.

As such, the first step is to reinterpret ‘social benefit’ by recalibrating the weight ascribed to financial returns and cultural impact. From a monetary vantage, there is indeed no getting away from the fact that the rewards of humanistic studies will always fall short of its more lucrative STEM cousins, but rather than taking this as an objective shortcoming, perhaps it is high time we adopted an alternative, albeit no less meriting, criterion – that of what the late Brazillian educator Paulo Freire calls ‘critical consciousness’ in his 1970 work Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

While Freire explains the idea of ‘critical consciousness’ as one’s “reading of the world”, it may help to understand it as a self-questioning impulse fuelled by one’s encounter with various narratives and perspectives, which is something that a detailed study of the humanities affords. Personal judgment is often challenged only when exposed to alternative views, and the ability to reconsider the validity of one’s own opinion is what sustains social debate. At a fundamental level, this counters pride and encourages empathy. When applied to the numbers-versus-narrative framework, it puts under scrutiny what Leon Wieselter acutely observes as the modern-day “overconfidence in trying to use numbers to explain human life”. But won’t going to a library in your spare time also do the job? Why is it necessary for us to spend three years (not to mention nine grand per year) labouring away at something we could easily access on our own?

My answer is simple but probably unpleasant: It is exactly the mental labouring over linguistic nuances, rhetorical tapestries and secondary analyses that doing a humanities degree requires which will trigger and hone one’s urge to question. Reading a book for leisure is an altogether different matter: you are, by definition of ‘leisure’, most likely seeking a mental break through the experience of reading, and even if you were a highbrow sucker for Shakespearean soliloquies or Derridean deconstruction, I doubt that you’d willingly subject your brain to a rigorous analytical grilling ‘just for fun’ after a day’s work.

This is also why the university is such a crucial place for humanistic study: it serves as an intellectual ‘playground’, a fecund academic space for ideas to pluralise and engage with one another. It is where students are handed the license to experiment with different modes of argument, types of ideology and structures of analysis without the baggage of workplace politics. This echoes the “free play of mind” which Matthew Arnold advocates in his 1864 The Functions of Criticism, and to Professor Small, this sort of intellectual freedom is what “checks the mechanical following of any ‘mean master-concern’… providing more curious, less dully habituated employers and employees”. Students sometimes complain about the open-endedness of humanities essays, but this open-ended quality is in fact the point at which democratic dialogue begins, and while for Oxbridge students this translates specifically into the Socratic method of learning, it is universally transferable as a way of coming to terms with the world’s pluralistic complexity.

This mindset explains why the humanistic discipline is so integral to social well-being at large: by exploring rhetorical implications and enabling narrative interplay, humanities scholars remind us as citizens of the constant need for intellectual flexibility – the capacity to dispense with bigotry, to question with curiosity and to ‘agree to disagree’ in a Voltairean spirit. As my tutor Philip Knox sums it up aptly: “We need the humanities to challenge the idea of knowledge as a received and static commodity – this is crucial to our lives as political agents. The value of a humanities degree cannot be understood as a return on an investment, but rather as a personally fulfilling and socially useful participation in the generation of knowledge.” Ultimately, Google search can offer us all the information available in the world, but it is the painstaking study of what such information means for humanity that will truly generate knowledge of relevance to everyone in our society.


PHOTO/Jennifer Chan