What Value Do the Humanities Have?

Stanley Fish has yet another piece on the value of the humanities. Fish argues that we shouldn’t defend the humanities on any sort of utilitarian argument–that by having students take humanities classes, they will learn how to think, how to write, to become better people, etc.–but rather that we should argue that they have an inherent value in and of themselves. He points out that if we justify the humanities in relation to something else, we are playing by another game’s rules, and we’re not likely to do well by doing so.

While I think Fish is a little too apt to reject any sort of justification of the humanities in the creation of well-rounded humans (perhaps because he’s being a bit elitist himself in his definition of what constitutes the humanities), and while I think he doesn’t actually understand the real value of the digital humanities (something to which I contributed in my dissertation in a chapter titled Introduction to the Fractal Distribution of Words in a Text back in 2004), I do think there is something to his Oakeschottian defense of the humanities. And I think that he would have made an even stronger argument had he understood the spontaneous orders argument underlying Oakeschott’s point.

Science is not justified by its contribution to the creation of technology nor to the improvement of health care. I would go farther and say that science has made almost no contribution to the creation of technology, and has rather come along most of the time to explain the technological advances being made. That’s certainly what happened with the steam engine–the science of thermodynamics was developed to explain the working of the engine; the engine wasn’t invented after we understood thermodynamics. While that may be changing with biotechnology, the overwhelming majority of science throughout the overwhelming majority of the history of science has worked this way. Science is self-justified. We learned why the steam engine works because of curiosity, not to make a steam engine.

The same is true of math. Developments in math have come about because people wanted to solve mathematical problems. That is all. The fact that some math has proven useful to understanding some aspect of the world have been fortunate, but there’s a lot of math out there that has no correlation in the real world.

Math and science are two different spontaneous orders. That is, they are epistemic ecosystems. Mathematical developments are made for their own sake, not for the sake of anything else–not even science. Yet, some of those developments in math have proven useful in understanding the world insofar as they are integrated with science. Equally, scientific investigations are designed to help someone learn something they are curious about, and literally for no other reason. Sometimes those discoveries lead to a practical advancement, but very few people are doing science to make technological breakthroughs. Those who are primarily interested in solving technological problems are working in their own spontaneous order. They may draw on the work of scientists, but often they are doing nothing of the sort.

The humanities–as well as the arts–are similarly epistemic ecosystems. People participate in them not for any “practical” purpose, but because they want to solve some sort of problem, to discover or create new knowledge (or, in the arts, to solve an artistic problem). While it’s theoretically possible for someone like Steve Jobs to take a calligraphy course and be inspired to offer different fonts on his word processor on his computers, I don’t think anyone can truly justify the teaching of calligraphy on the off chance that something like that is ever going to happen.

If we take a broader view of the arts and humanities and include TV and film, visual rhetoric, communications, etc., we can perhaps begin to understand the degree to which the arts and humanities touch literally everyone on earth. Few may read Dante’s Divine Comedy, but reading and understanding it can help one to understand the degree to which those ideas have permeated Western culture and even world culture, permeated our stories and the ways in which we think. That is something which I find worth knowing, but which others may not. And that’s okay. But it should be okay among those who don’t find it personally worthwhile for me to do so. A little less dismissive snobbery from both camps might be in order.

The fact is the humanities help us to understand our social world. Those who enjoy TV and film ought to be among the first to defend the study of works of great literature and the visual arts, because TV and film are always drawing on the past great stories that have lasted for decades, centuries, and even millennia, and they are always drawing on the visuals created over that same period of time. Most of our common cliches were first coined by people like Shakespeare. There are pop songs that directly reference Romeo and Juliet. How many songs in recent years have referenced Nietzsche’s dictum that whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger?

The humanities are self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. Science is self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. The free market is self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. Math is self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. Technological innovation is self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. The arts are self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. So is philosophy, religion, philanthropy, democracy, the social sciences, and any number of other spontaneous orders. They are justified by people simply being interested in doing those things.

Of course, the reason people want to justify what they do is because they need to pay the bills. How do we get people to pay us to do what we love doing? Often we have to argue that there is some value beyond our own interest and the interest of a handful of others. The sciences, the arts, the humanities, the social sciences, and math, among others, are luxuries only those with leisure time can dedicate themselves to creating. At the same time, the universality of things like storytelling suggests there is a necessary element to some of these things.

We spend way too much time and energy in storytelling–myth-making, gossiping, reading novels and poems, listening to songs, watching TV, watching movies, etc.–for it to just be a luxury. There has to be some kind of selective advantage for humans to do something so energy-intensive so often. I do believe we need to spend some time and energy learning why this is. Of course, that too is a self-justifying argument. We don’t have to know these things to keep telling and enjoying stories. But we might want to know it for the sake of knowing it–and if knowing that happens to help justify some money being freed up for the humanities, all the better.

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On the Usefulness of Poetry for Learning

There was a time when people realized
That poetry was easy to remember
And people wrote in verse — yes, essays too —
Because the rhythms and the lines which were
The same length as their short-term memory
Allowed them to remember what was written.
That’s also why so many plays were written
In verse, to help the actors memorize
The plays more easily. As we have moved
Away from rhythmic verse, we’ve also heard
Complaints about our students’ memories,
How they don’t seem to know a thing, it seems.
Perhaps if we were teaching everything
In blank verse lines so that our rhythmic brains
Could map the rhythmic lines more easily
Onto themselves, then we could memorize
Far more than we do now. The science is
Most certainly behind me on this thesis.

There was a kind of poetry intended
To teach the reader, which has fallen out
Of fashion. Once didactic poetry
Was well-respected. Alexander Pope
Wrote his Essay on Man not in dull prose
But rather in heroic couplets. Just
Consider these few lines of his knowledge:
“Say first, of God above or Man below
What can we reason but from what we know?”
Epistemology has never been
More clearly stated, or more beautifully.
We have as models of this kind of verse
The likes of Hesiod and Ovid, Virgil
And Shelley. Why have we rejected use
And information as an aim of verse?
It seems the very worst that Modernism
Contributed was the idea that
All art — and even the humanities —
Should be completely useless. Art for art’s
Sake, nothing more. Indeed, this freed
The arts, allowed proliferations of
Such forms as we had never seen in such
A short time period. And yet one has
To wonder why the usefulness of some
Art could not be retained. The structure of
Our brains allow the regularities
Of poetry to easily deliver
The information and ideas which
Bombard us in high qualities today,
So much of which we need to know to do
The complex jobs we have, to understand
The world in its complexity, which we
Did not evolve to really deal with. Yet
We have a tool — a tool which we discarded —
Which lets us learn so much so fast that we
Could even understand this world we live
In better and in much more depth than we
Do now. Can you imagine what we could
Learn more than we now think is possible?

Perhaps you don’t believe the things I say.
Well, let me ask you this: how many lines
Of prose can you recite? How many songs?
A song indeed is poetry, and you
No doubt can sing a couple dozen songs
Without a note to prompt you. Why is this?
Perhaps it is because all that I said
Is true. The rhythms and the rhymes of songs
And formal poetry get stuck and play
Themselves on your brain’s rhythmic circuitry.
When we get earworms, it is never prose,
But always songs which we hear in our heads.
Our memories are rhythmic and work best
With rhythms when we want to memorize
For quick recall. Imagine too the new
Ideas which our brains could formulate
If we in fact made use of what our brains
Could really do by taking full advantage
Of how it works. It is too bad that we
Don’t take advantage of the usefulness
Of poetry to learn about the world.
The sciences and the humanities
Could all be easily accessible,
Could easily be learned if we could just
Present it to our students in blank verse.

Discipline

Discipline and disciple (which means “pupil”) have the same roots for a reason. Without discipline, you cannot be a pupil, you cannot be a student, you cannot learn. Proper discipline, especially self-discipline, is what gives us true freedom. Liberty is not libertinage. Freedom is not chaos. Freedom is the golden mean between order and chaos — it is arrived at through discipline.

Interdisciplinary Thinking IS Thinking

Jonathan Haidt observes that today’s students are taught that everything should be interpreted through the lens of power. A real irony of that is those who teach the religion of power all claim to get it from Nietzsche, who himself argued in favor of perspectivism. His ideas on power are much more complex than the power-worshipers of today think it to be.

That being said, consider what Haidt says about his own education:

“When I was at Yale in the 1980s, I was given so many tools for understanding the world. By the time I graduated, I could think about things as a utilitarian or as a Kantian, as a Freudian or a behaviorist, as a computer scientist or as a humanist. I was given many lenses to apply to any given question or problem.”

This is the fundamentals of a truly interdisciplinary education. A multidisciplinary education gives you a variety of perspectives through which you can interpret the world. There is no One True Way, as students are currently taught. But an interdisciplinary education takes the multidisciplinary education a step further, and shows you how those perspectives are themselves integrated in a unity-with-variety/variety-with-unity way.

I’m optimistic, but only because one of the models I use to understand the world suggests that we are at the end of a great social cycle, and the beginnings of a new one are being laid by people like Haidt.

Bad Eggs

Oftentimes we believe something — understand what it means in theory — but don’t really know for certain, since we don’t have any actual evidence for it. For example, I understand that disruptive students severely harm the educations of their fellow students. If there is but one in the class who will not be quiet, who is rude and disruptive and a showoff and won’t sit down and won’t do his work, then that prevents his fellow classmates from doing well. I understood this in theory. But then, about a decade ago, I had a class that proved it.

I once taught a 7th grade English class that has a student who is exactly this way (loud, rude, etc.). I had been reading Aesop’s fables to teach my students the very basics of storytelling. I read them one, then ask them 1) What happened? 2) Who is the protagonist? 3) Who is the antagonist? 4) What is the setting? 5) What could you learn from this fable? They do the work in class. I have done this several times already. Let me give 1) the statistics for the two days this student was in class, then give 2) the statistics for two days he was suspended.

1) Day 1:
Average grade = 24
Number of zeros (did not turn in work at all, out of 24 students) = 14
Average grade without counting zeros = 58

Day 2:
Average grade = 34
Number of zeros (did not turn in work at all) = 11
Average grade without counting zeros = 62

2) Day 3:
Average grade = 64
Number of zeros (did not turn in work at all) = 6
Average grade without counting zeros = 87

Day 4:
Average grade = 81
Number of zeros (did not turn in work at all) = 2
Average grade without counting zeros = 89

That’s right, the average grades doubled with the absence of this student. More, this absent student has a friend in my class. Here are his grades, from day 1 to day 4: 42, 10, 100, 90. He went from a 10 one day to a 100 the next day. Am I really to think that he suddenly “got it” within a day? That’s not an impossiblity. However, his highly disruptive friend was not there — and his grades leapt up. And guess what happened when his friend returned. That’s right, the grades plummeted again.

What does this mean? Should me just get rid of some students, count them as a lost cause? Perhaps not — I’m not quite so pessimistic as that. However, this does indicate that one major problem with our schools is the very presence of such students. How to fix it? How does one fix bad parenting? Or poor societal influences?

What we can do is reintroduce actual discipline to our classes (I have discovered that the only students detentions work on are those who don’t get them — those who do, their own parents don’t want them around, and those parents are happy to get rid of them an hour earlier). And we need to have strong discipline from early on. That means having strict, strong principals in our schools, but it also means we need to do things like teach manners, ethics, posture — things we have abandoned long ago. These will lay the foundation of good behavior later. Will this mean there will be no bad eggs? Of course not. But there will be many, many fewer — and those we do still have, we can remove from the classrooms more easily and put them in classrooms together, away from the rest of the students, so the rest of the students have a chance to become educated.

On Education as a Gift

There are many reasons to love teaching, and there are many reasons to hate it. When you have students who love to learn, there are few better jobs to have. But if your students don’t care, it can be among the worst.

I don’t know why I take it personally, but I do — students’ refusal to do their homework, to study, to listen and learn. Perhaps it is because education is a gift, and I, as a teacher, wish to bestow this gift on my students. Who would not be insulted, offended, hurt if their gifts were turned down and even disdained?

Imagine offering a gift of great value to someone and they turned up their nose at it, sneered at it, threw it back in your face? How would you feel? That, indeed, is how I feel when students don’t want to learn, don’t want to work, disrupt class and talk and refuse to listen when I speak.

That is why I take it personally when students won’t do everything they can to accept the gift of education I offer. To refuse a gift is a hateful thing indeed. That is why I feel my anger is justified. That is why I take it personally.

10 Things Schools Should Teach

1. A true physical education, centered around gymnastics

2. A requirement for all students to learn good posture

3. A musical education (my best students are all in band)

4. A poetic education, where poetry is the core around which all reading is based. I am sick of having to re-teach the love of poetry after teachers have taught students to hate it

5. Repetition and memorization — which, according to both traditional educational theories and modern brain science, is the only way the brain learns anything

6. A language curriculum based on what we have learned from linguistics — meaning, students will be taught foreign languages when they can learn them, between the ages of 5 and 10

7. An ethical education, where students are taught to take responsibility for their own actions and not whine over every little thing; this would include etiquette

8. A reintroduction of classes such as shop and auto mechanics, as well as plumbing and electronics, since not every child is an academic or will go to college

9. A high standard of excellence — since this is what is lacking in most schools anymore

10. The trivium and the quadrivium