Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Death Of The Humanities Is Greatly Exaggerated

Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho. Western Civ has got to go!

And so the humanities--especially English departments--descended into idiocy. The result is stifling political correctness, nihilistic postmodernism, an absurd version of feminism, a bizarre fetish with race, class and gender, all guided by an anti-rational, anti-intellectual world view. This is how academics of my generation--baby boomers--spent the first half of their careers.

So it is with some serious schadenfreude that I read Tamar Lewin's piece As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry (h/t Edububble). She writes,
They have generous compensation, stunning surroundings and access to the latest technology and techniques of scholarship. The only thing they lack is students: Some 45 percent of the faculty members in Stanford’s main undergraduate division are clustered in the humanities — but only 15 percent of the students.
A paragraph later the real problem emerges:
“We have 11 humanities departments that are quite extraordinary, and we want to provide for that faculty,” said Richard Shaw, Stanford’s dean of admission and financial aid.
Those poor, unprovided-for professors. Why should they suffer because they were unapologetically stupid for twenty-five years? If 18-year-olds can still be suckered into paying exorbitant tuition to listen to some ultra-feminist adjunct try to brainwash them, then what's to worry.

So I have no sympathy at all for humanities faculty--they deserve to be unemployed. Yet two issues are being conflated--the fate of the faculty (good riddance), and the fate of the humanities (as necessary as ever). That's the subject I want to address.

There are three parts to the argument: 1) The continuing importance of the humanities. 2) The economic role for the humanities. And 3) the problem with the faculty.

The humanities remain crucially important because they address three essential questions: Who are we? Why are we here? What should we do? I do not agree with Stephen Pinker, who claims that science offers much help for these questions. Science says that we are merely little bits of randomly assembled dust in a vast universe. Incredibly, he then claims this leads to a humanistic outlook. Science may be true, but it is not helpful. People who believe that God loves us will lead happier, healthier lives than any nihilistic scientist.

Accordingly, science isn't much help in deciding important questions. I'll use gay rights as an illustrative example.

Science has shown that homosexuality is a biological phenomenon--people are born with the tendency and cannot change it. So science precludes the medieval notion that homosexuality is per se a sin deserving of punishment. But that still leaves at least two possible attitudes:

  1. Homosexuality is just another manifestation of human nature, and the rest of society needs to accommodate itself to that fact. The discussion revolves around whether civil unions or gay marriage is the best way to do that.
  2. Homosexuality is a handicap, like blindness. Society needs to help gays overcome their disability as much as possible, but otherwise to lead as normal (heterosexual) lives as possible.
This choice does not depend on any scientific fact, but instead on answers to the humanities' three questions. It's all about values. Most social, political, and economic questions are like that--science really doesn't get us very far. Art, literature, philosophy and history are more fruitful methods of inquiry.

The humanities play an essential role in the modern economy. It is surprising that the professoriate doesn't really recognize that. They think it's all about well-rounded individuals or critical thinking skills (whatever those are). They tacitly concede that STEM disciplines are where it's at career-wise. But STEM subjects are the most readily computerized, and so the number of people employed in STEM disciplines will per force decline. I've written about that here. To paraphrase myself, regarding STEM skills, whatever you can do, a computer can do better.

If, like Tyler Cowen, you're stuck in the STEM silo, then you consign people to that small but shrinking space in freestyle chess where a human/machine combination can still beat a machine. In a word, most people will be unemployed. But computers can't do humanistic stuff. They can't make something beautiful, nor can they choose the good life, nor can the make ethical judgments. Ultimately, they can't make people happy. Accordingly, I think more people than ever will be employed as writers, entertainers, waitresses, musicians, chefs, prostitutes, preachers, and artists, than as scientists and engineers. The 20th Century was the age of STEM. The 21st Century will be the era of the Arts & Humanities.

Finally, the humanities are being radically democratized. Academics still delude themselves in believing that obscure, unread and unreadable monographs are the coin of the realm. But they're wrong. The true humanities happens in the blogosphere, on Kindle, on YouTube, and other places where people can create and use art and ideas. There will still be teachers and classrooms, and books and seminars, and ideas and conversation. But the job of professor is over. The PhD will disappear. The monographs will sink back into the medieval mud from which they emerged.

The age of the paid scholar is over. Art will be created because it's fun and beautiful, not because somebody has tenure. Literature will be studied as a labor of love, not because of a paycheck. The professor of the humanities is a dying breed.

Long live the humanities.

Further Reading:

1 comment:

  1. "The professor of the humanities is a dying breed."

    God, I hope so. I had Humanities as an honors elective in high school. Strictly Art, Music, Literature and they added Anthropology. Never anything political.