In Praise of the Useless University

Martha Nussbaum, among many others (including almost everyone who writes college catalog entries for humanities departments) argues that the liberal arts are good for business and democracy.  The humanities teach us critical thinking skills and help form in us an “enlarged mind” that is useful for becoming successful in the world of commerce and politics.

But should we proponents of the humanities be making our case in this way?

According to Fencing Bear at Prayer, here’s the case for the humanities:  There isn’t one.

Why study the humanities? Not because they will make us better citizens. Not because they will make our lives physically more comfortable or enable us to build better engines or cure cancer. But because one of the things that human beings do is reflect on what it means to be a human being and to wonder at the many forms of expression this reflection has taken. That’s it. Take this reflection away and we might as well be robots. Or beasts. Comfortable, well-built robots or healthy beasts, to be sure, but no longer ourselves. Not human.

Rufus F. at the League of Ordinary Gentleman insists we stop selling the humanities for all of the other things they are “good for” and remember that liberal learning is a good in itself, however “useless.”

The humanities are rooted in the study of texts, which will increasingly put them at odds with a society in which reading is becoming vestigial. People who grow up detached from any cultural/historical context will find academics increasingly alien, if not offensive to their sensibilities. Attacks on the humanities will increase. The way to address them isn’t to trick the public into thinking they’re getting something else for their money, but to repeatedly defend the right of academics to hang back from the passions of the day- to be less-than-useful for whatever desires the society wants satisfied today. That means, by the way, academics in the humanities must drop altogether the pretense of political “activism” and, in their public role, become much more explicitly apoliticaland inactivist; conversely, they need to start expressing quite loudly the worth of this eternal hanging back, instead of flattering and placating a culture that is arguably no culture.

Matthew J. Milliner’s piece, “Useless University,” reminds us that John Henry Newman held that truth has two attributes, beauty and power.  The power of truth is expressed in useful knowledge, the knowledge and skills required for business, technology, and government, in short the knowledge useful for getting a job.  In the liberal arts, on the other hand, the beauty of truth can be discovered and contemplated for its own sake.  Such contemplation is an end in itself, pursued just because we can.  Milliner draws the conclusion:

If Newman is right, then to justify the liberal arts, which would now include what we call the humanities, as instrumentally useful, is also to betray them….

Of course, we all have to eat.  Which means most of us have to have jobs.  But do all of us have to have jobs that preclude our having the leisure for contemplating the beauty of being, of the cosmos, of truth?  Here’s an idea (from Toby Ord): live like a graduate student…forever!

  1. Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: