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No people can be both ignorant and free.

One of the first victims of an economic downturn is usually the Humanities. Desperate to cut their budgets, government officials first turn to areas of least opposition – humanities funding – cutting the size and scope of grants given to research in history, literature, philosophy, religion, and other such pursuits. The case for the value of a Humanities education has been made umpteen times, and as many times and more have the naysayers not paid any attention to it, as today’s societal strains show.

Before we can ask what the purpose of the Humanities is, perhaps we should ask what the purpose of a university is, or even what the purpose of a nation is. If it is the accumulation of money and power, there is no better example in the last century than the United States. Yet although American wealth has inspired people around the world, American society and its values not. Ironically, it is the same Holy Trinity – money, power, and technology – that is the reason for the disillusionment. There is nothing wrong with the pursuit of material gain, of course, so long as it constitutes a means and not ends. But in the US, the Trinity became the ends, purposes in and of themselves, until finally, the society itself had no purpose at all.

The Humanities exist to ask – and celebrate – why we are here; what is the meaning of life; what is good, and what is bad; what are our duties, rights, and obligations; what is beauty, or honour, or love. The Humanities interrogates a whole gamut of fields that can and cannot be explained by empirical methods alone. Beyond that basic point, the argument of utility fails to sway in that the application of many ideas or inventions are quite unintended and surprising. There is also a moral element to the teaching of the Humanities – it is through art that we learn to appreciate and form values in life that cannot be reduced to their utilitarian functions.

What is paideia?

But what constitutes a good education anyway? Surely a university should strive to enable a young student to take his or her rightful place in the world and do well, equip the young mind with important skills in business, law, engineering, or medicine that would predispose one to success? Surprisingly to many, that was not the goal of a university until the mid-20th century. It was only after World War II that the primary purpose of a college education became gainful employment and learning for learning’s sake came to be considered as a luxury. As universities around the globe began to follow the corporate model to meet the war-ravaged planet’s urgent needs, education became a commodity, whose only value lies in its utility. However, before this great transformation, a university where one received a well-rounded education. According to Werner Jaeger, the famous classicist, the Ancient Greeks defined paedeia as the process of educating humans into their true form, the real and genuine human nature. For the Greeks, one was made a good person or citizen by virtue of one’s education and ethos, or habits. In such a quest, a student would be expected to take classes on rhetoric, grammar, mathematics, music, philosophy, geography, natural history, and gymnastics at school and university. As Buddhists yearn for nirvana, Christians for salvation, and Hindus for moksha, the Ancient Greeks desired arete, the condition of living to one’s full or highest human potential, above all else. Paideia was the training required to achieve arete.

While battles over pedagogical methods have thrown up various differing strategies over time, they largely dealt with how children should be taught rather than with what they should be exposed to. Ancient Greeks from Plato and Aristotle through medieval Arabs such as Ibn Sina and Ibn Tufayyl to early modern Europeans such as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Milton have agreed that an education in the Humanities – metaphysics, ethics, theology, literature, language – were essential even if the student were to go on to techné. This is not a merely Western idea – as unfashionable as it may be to find value in India’s/Hinduism’s notorious caste system, nevertheless, it began as essentially a hierarchy of intellect.

Paideia and the Law of Unintended Consequences

Perhaps the most common criticism of the Humanities (whose advocates no doubt consider it a sort of debating ‘kill-shot’) comes from questioning its contributions to society. While no one would, I hope, reject the notion that art and literature make the world a more beautiful place, it is often argued that in a world of shrinking budgets, teeming millions of the hungry, sick, and unemployed, any expenditure on the Humanities is decadent and wasteful as it can solve no immediate problem. Or, to put it another way, gazing upon Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Socrates does no good to an empty stomach. While this argument seems to hold together at first glance, it is what philosophers call a red herring fallacy, or more accurately, argumentum ad misericordiam (appeal to pity).

In any case, there are other reasons this line of interrogation fails. The most important one is that Humanities has actually helped science in many unacknowledged ways. Stephen Mexal, assistant professor of English, gives three concrete examples – the first is the development of two programming systems in the 1970s, WEB and CWEB, inspired by ‘stream of consciousness’ thinking, an idea pioneered by William James in 1890. The second example is the use of historians by William Donovan to develop the Office of Strategic Services’ (OSS) analytical methods during World War II, presumably to organise the gathered intelligence. The last example is the approach James Angleton, head of counterintelligence for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), used to synthesise intelligence and manage information. Angleton gave credit to ideas he had picked up from books on literary criticism. What unites these examples is not that they exemplify times when humanities research has had ‘practical’ value, but rather times when it has had unintended instrumental value. Neither William James or the scholars of literary criticism that Angleton read could have imagined what their ideas would be applied to, and it would be asinine to suppose that people kept studying the Iliad for millennia with an eye toward establishing the CIA. Instead, research in the humanities, like research in all disciplines, is valuable precisely because we never know where new knowledge will lead us.

In 2009, scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory published an interesting paper that showed the complex web of influences between various disciplines. Putting their results in a graph, they tracked the reading patterns of nearly 100,000 online scholarly journals from when a researcher in one academic field cited an article in another academic field. Their resulting graph looks like a wheel in which the hub is composed of humanities and social science journals, and the rim is made up mostly of natural science publications. The spokes are formed by journals from interdisciplinary fields. The findings suggest that the humanities act as a bridge among disciplines, sparking new ideas and areas of research. As the authors conclude, their findings correct the “underrepresentation of the social sciences and humanities” in outcomes of scientific research.

While the LANL study gives empirical data to satisfy the quantitatively leaning, the interplay between the Humanities and the Sciences was never more apparent than during the latter’s most fecund period in memory – the 18th and 19th centuries. In an excellent study of philosophy, literature, and biology in the age of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Robert Richards lays bare the nexus of these three fields in the Germanies. The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe shows how concepts of self, along with aesthetic and moral considerations gave complementary shape to biological representations of nature. The key argument Richards makes in his work (that is pertinent to us) is how strongly Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was shaped by Romantic Naturphilosophie. As Richards writes, “the Naturphilosophen usually invoked special causal forces to explain the instantiation of archetypes andtheir progressive variations, forces that were transformations of physical powers—for example Schelling’s polar forces or Goethe’s Bildungstrieb. With Darwin that force became natural selection.” Thus, Darwin is revealed as a later mix of Goethe and Alexander von Humboldt.

These examples illustrate that the Humanities and the Sciences, so oft positioned in contradistinction to each other, blend quite well with each other and play a balanced and symbiotic role. While administrative policy-type critics may wish to question the utility of the Humanities, many scientists do not.

Paideia as the Intentionality Quotient

An often-heard critique of the Humanities that seems sound superficially is that with the advances in science over the past century, there is hardly any need (any more) of disciplines like philosophy, theology, or history. Indeed, the advances of science have been many and remarkable, and it would be foolish to deny that we possess better understanding of the brain or of genetic migrations (and hence population shifts) over time. The miracles that were once the purview of God have been brought down from the heavens to Earth, dissected, studied, understood, and in many instances, replicated. Yet it is inaccurate to say that science has made redundant these disciplines, certainly for now, and perhaps for a long while into the future.

Let us take the advances in neuroscience – with fMRIs, nMRIs, and a dozen other new techniques, scientists are today able to understand a lot more about how our brains work. Even if we fast-forward ourselves to a time when these techniques give us perfect knowledge of the chemical processes in the brain, I remain sceptical that these probes could ever reveal why a subject feels pain or remorse at the recital of a poem. An excellent example of this is the one Roger Scruton gave in a speech at the United Nations in 2009 – would any scientific test be able to make sense beyond a canvas-and-pigmentation level of Titian’s Venus of Urbino? Further, would any test be able to appreciate the difference between Titian’s work and Manet’s Olympia as an art connoisseur would? Can science tell us the difference between ‘unclothed’ and ‘nakedness,’ or, to borrow from Clifford Geertz, a wink and a blink?

Titian – Venus of Urbino (1538) Manet – Olympia (1863)

It is not fair to ask these questions of science, for they lie outside the framework for which science was built. The point is clearly illustrated, however, that the Humanities – in this case art or art history – can provide a rich contextual analysis for us that the sciences cannot. Similarly, while science can postulate on the age of the Iliad or the Mahabharata, it cannot answer why these texts became some of the most important works of world literature or the environments which gave prominence to these works over others.

Paideia as Morals

There is, of course, a strong case (and an old one too) to be made for the Humanities being the dispensers of morality – or at least ethics – especially in a secular world.  While many scoff at this notion and begin to point to well-educated people who are or were small-minded, bitter, lustful, greedy, arrogant, cruel, vicious or evil, it should be noted that these are the properties of humans and not knowledge. It would be gratifying, in return, to point to the abominations of science – chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons, scientific racism, global warming – but that would not further our issue here. Furthermore, these problems have more to do with the misuse of science than with technically educated people.

Returning to the Ancient Greeks, Aristotle thought that the goal of education was synonymous with the goal of man. Education was to help a person reach complete self-realisation because that was the state of maximum happiness, for which everyone ultimately yearns. In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle asks whether “happiness is to be acquired by learning or by habituation or some other sort of training, or comes in virtue of some divine providence or again by chance” (1099b11-12). The reply is equally clear: “virtuous activities…are what constitute happiness” (1100b9-10). There are two categories of virtue for Aristotle: intellectual and moral (1103a4-5). Wrote the philosopher, “intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time) while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit” (1103a14-19). He further stated, “The man who is to be good must be well trained and habituated” (1180a14-16).

Aristotle states in Politics that the goal of human action is leisure (1333a30, 1333b15). In the Nicomachean Ethics, he argues that “happiness is thought to depend on leisure” (1177b4). Furthermore, one of the essential goals of education is that it should be for leisure, or schole (1333b3). Thus, in the Aristotelian philosophy of education, a central position is occupied by education for leisure. This is an essential part of the training for the ‘business of being a man.’ Here, leisure is not to be confused with idling, or a kind of dolce far niente. It is the faculty of being able and knowing how to use one’s time freely. Freedom is one of the ultimate goals of education, for happiness is impossible without freedom. Such freedom is achieved through contemplation or the philosophical life, that is to say, in the activity of the mind relieved of all material constraints. This is why it is particularly important that education should not have the character of vocational training. For “the meaner sort of artisan is a slave, not for all purposes butfor a definite servile task” (1260a42). The provision of this sort of education should be the goal of a legislator “above all” (1337a11).

Ethics cannot come from science as that is not the scope of their inquiry. Besides, if we are to take seriously the many scientists who are fond of telling us repeatedly that science is value-neutral (!), it would seem that science is particularly unsuitable for the task of inculcating ethics. But how do the Humanities succeed where science fails? Undoubtedly, both streams question their worlds vigorously, but the Humanities do so in the same realm ethics resides in. Philosophy, literature, history, and art teach us to question why and ask, “so what?” They expose us to different ideas and value systems and to interrogate them. They give us examples of cognitive dissonance and incontinence among powerful figures and show us the consequences of these weakness that we all possess. The Liberal Arts try to persuade us that nihil humanum mihi alienum puto. Through example, and the ability to evaluate those examples, the Humanities make us capable of, as Aristotle would describe it, self-realisation. Explaining the dilemma between potential and actualisation, Alan Ryan, Oxford Professor of Politics, said,

Securing a literate and numerate population can certainly be justified as an investment in human capital; indeed, every study suggests that education is individually and socially an extremely good investment in the simplest monetary terms. What cannot be shown is that it is an investment in ethical terms. The only thing Mozart can be guaranteed to do for those whose souls he touches is to touch their souls.1

Paideia in the 21st century

All this is not to say that there are no problems in the Humanities today. The critiques articulated against the Liberal Arts, though inaccurate and shoddily worded, do possess a grain of truth. In today’s environment, the Humanities are under siege from intellectual movements and market trends that have made them and their lessons quotidian and banal.

In the commodification of education and the corporatisation of the University, annual rankings have university administrators breathing down the necks of Humanities departments to prove their worth. One way of doing this is to hire more faculty and churn out more graduate students. Unfortunately, this has caused a glut in an already competitive job market (made worse by the tenure system), and the first casualty has been the nature of research. In a desperate bid to be original, graduate students (particularly the poorly read ones) choose dissertation topics that are narrower and narrower on more and more obscure trivia in their chosen field until perhaps a handful of people in the world (charitably) would even know or care about their research. Admittedly, it is impossible to know the value of any research (sometimes for decades afterwords) and we plod along stoically, convinced that all knowledge is good, even – especially – for its own sake. Nonetheless, this behaviour has a political cost – the more theses that are produced in this manner, the less patience philanthropists/donors/grants commissions will have with the field. Unless the Humanities can show some semblance of relevance to reality, there will be many more people lining up to reduce the budget of the National Endowment for the Humanities (or such bodies).

There is bound to be a concern about a return on investment. The mentality would be (and rightly so, given the tuition of some colleges), “If I go to college, and spend so much money, there’d better be a high-paying job for me when I graduate.” As a liberal arts education is considered more idealistic and not utilitarian, the onus is on the Humanities to prove that education carries more than a monetary value. As Eric Gould, Professor of English, notes, “knowledge is never for its own sake: it is always for someone’s sake; it always has some personal, functional, or pragmatic value.” Liberal education, he says, “is one for a free mind, a mind curious to roam where it will, intent on study for its own sake.”2 With the rising prices of education and an unstable economy, it would be difficult to convince parents to pay for an extra year or two of college just so that their children could gain personal value. Four years of courses doesn’t seem enough to give students the skills they need for their future profession, prepare them for the world in general, and make them well-rounded intelligent people and citizens of the world. And so preference is given to what students see as pragmatic and at the cost of the humanities that would have given them personal value. Gould continues, “As we fail to give the curriculum integrative power through the arts and sciences, as we resist focussing on the symbolic functions of knowledge, we will increasingly trust in the blind ambition of the market to set our values and curricular emphases.”3 Ryan explains our modern situation very well: “The economy needs very few excellent mathematicians, but a lot of averagely numerate workers…The experience suggests that this is a sound view: the United States is the most productive country in the world; its popular culture is as attractive to other countries as its technical expertise in aeronautical engineering and computer software. It is neither an intellectually rigorous nor a culturally ambitious society, however; outside major metropolitan areas, there are few bookshops, the radio plays an unending diet of gospel or country and western music, and intellectual pretensions are not encouraged. The nation has prospered without inculcation in its young people the cultural and intellectual ambitions that French lycees and German gymnasia inculcate in their student.”4

Yet another crisis in the Humanities has been the cultural turn and the advent of postmodernism as a theory. If you would have asked the average person what the purpose of art, literature, or philosophy was in the mid-19th century, they would have answered beauty; had you persisted in your questioning, you would have found that beauty, like love or truth, was also a virtue. However, towards the end of the century, the Humanities took a turn for the worse. Rather than inspire and seek truth or beauty, they began to seek to shock or disgust, and what is once shocking is boring the second time. Worse, this position began to engender the idea that anything can be art and anyone can be an artist because art did not have to be beautiful any more. Such cultural relativism has inevitably led to a moral relativism whereby we are now scared to judge other value systems or cultures lest we be called out as intolerant or bigoted. But the Humanities was not meant to be constricted in such an artificial manner; it was always meant to question, tease out, ponder upon, and tweak ideas and ideals. It is the surrender of this ability to political correctness and forces of intimidation that has made the Humanities parochial and lose respect.

Finally, we come to a most thorny issue with the inculcation of a Liberal Arts education – egalitarianism. In our democratic society, we are made to believe that everyone is equal even if this is patently false. While many would not disagree with the notion of equality of opportunity, the equality of outcomes is a little hard to fathom or digest. By its very nature, an education in the Humanities privileges those with means (although scholarships give access to a few with talent) rather than democratically. This need not be a catastrophe if measures are put in place to reduce the difference between the haves and the have-nots: a mandatory inclusion of the Humanities until college would, to some extent, expose all sections of society to the appreciation of beauty and teach them to think critically.

We must also be a mature society that realises that the Liberal Arts is not for everyone, as is the case with tennis or journalism or ballet. Engineering, medicine, and the professions are just as necessary for a group as are its visionaries and thinkers. Indeed, as the case has been made umpteen times, the technical fields have improved the material quality of life leaps and bounds over the last century. Yet it is for the Humanities to contribute its share, no less or no more important, to fill in the odd gaps and give society ideals by recounting and depicting virtues, by creating a narrative. As Neil Postman said, without a narrative, life has no meaning; without meaning, learning has no purpose; without a purpose, schools are houses of detention, not attention.

1: Alan Ryan, Liberal Anxieties and Liberal Education (New York: Hill and Wang, 1998), 26.

2: Eric Gould, The University in the corporate culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 27.

3: Ibid.

4: Ryan, Liberal Anxieties and Liberal Education, 49.