A Defense of the Humanities
by J J Cohen
From Geoffrey Galt Harpham, president and director of the National Humanities Center, writing in The Chronicle:
The alleviation of human suffering, the restoration of opportunity, and the resurrection of confidence must be our top priorities. But the present crisis must not be the horizon of our thinking; our most immediate concerns cannot be our only concerns. While we are struggling through the morass of the present, we must retain both our memory, which sustains us, and our imagination, which must light the way forward.
Memory and imagination place us in the general domain of the humanities. And that leads to my main argument: The humanities are, if not the top priority right now, at least one of the areas that must be recognized as crucial, and supported accordingly. The present crisis does not eclipse the humanities but rather reveals the need for the skills, dispositions, and resources that the humanities, and only the humanities, cultivate …
Our models failed not because they were imprecise but because they were too precise, too neat and crisp to take in the imaginative and social nature of value … Now, with the collapse of financial markets worldwide, we see that all value, everywhere, is a function of confidence, or a belief in fictions. The immense cash infusions on which we now pin our hopes are simply fictions that we hope will be more persuasive than others — not because they are real, but simply because a large power insists that they be taken for real: They are, as the phrase has it, “backed by the full faith and confidence of the federal government.”
Our material lives are sustained by our belief in such fictions, and when we stop believing — as we now have, temporarily — we see revealed the immaterial foundations of the real world. When, a generation ago, a few “postmodern” theorists began to talk about the fictional character of reality, they were laughed at by those who considered themselves hardheaded realists; nobody, not even the most doctrinaire postmodernist, is laughing now.
So why support the humanities? The answer is not just that the humanities deserve no less than Citigroup, AIG, or General Motors — in fact, the humanities do not need a huge bailout, only predictable support — but that the humanities elicit and exercise ways of thinking that help us navigate the world we live in. For my money, that’s about as essential as it gets.
Wow, an apologia for the humanities that embraces the insights of critical theory rather than dismisses theory as something that got in the way of seeing what was valuable within humanistic study. It sure isn’t the 1990s any more.
[my thanks to Roy Guenther for sending me this article]