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.

Interdisciplinary Education for an Interdisciplinary World

Part of the problem with education is students do not know what relevance many topics they study have for them.

I remember throughout grade and high school that I thought math to be utterly unimportant and irrelevant to anything I was ever going to do. And throughout most of my early years I had wanted to be a scientist. How could teachers have allowed me to think that math was not important? I did not really learn math was important until I took chemistry in high school. It was only then that I truly understood fractions for the first time.

And, even though I loved to read, I thought literature pointless (it did not help that in high schools they seem to go out of their way to find the most boring literature available –- I learned how wonderful literature was in college, when we were made to read books and stories that were actually interesting). Literature had nothing to do with biology, after all, and that was what I was going to go into. This attitude is not unique to me or to high school –- it prevails in most students, and through college.

It was only later, after I had decided to pursue literature and especially after I started working on my Ph.D. that I began to see how interconnected everything was. For my dissertation, I was able to use my biology (after all, I wrote a dissertation titled Evolutionary Aesthetics), and I further discovered that it would have been a much, much, much better dissertation if I had known a great deal more math (fractal geometry and statistics in particular) and had learned to program (I actually needed to learn how to program much, much earlier than my Ph.D. dissertation, for my first attempt at grad school, but after I dropped out of my Master’s in biology, I didn’t think I needed to learn the programming I had needed to learn to finish my Master’s thesis–wrong again!).

I learned as I progressed through grad school that I actually needed many more tools from many more disciplines to do the work I wanted to do. For my dissertation, I needed to know social psychology, evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, economics, linguistics, neurobiology, molecular biology, mathematics, chaos theory and fractal geometry, programming, literature, and philosophy. And I didn’t know the math or programming I needed. I found a programmer, fortunately, but even then it would have been much better if I could have done it, and I couldn’t do the math I needed to do certain analyses to more definitively prove my thesis.

The disciplinary approach to teaching is breaking down. Students are siphoned into what they enjoy, and these same students then ignore everything else, complaining about anything that intrudes on the one thing they want to learn. This kind of hyper-specialized education is fine if all you want to produce is worker bees. But if you want creative thinkers, those who can come up with new things –- the kind of people who will make more wealth and produce more value in and for the world –- then disciplinary-only educations will not work.

What we need is a truly interdisciplinary education. We need interdisciplinary thinking, interdisciplinary classes, and interdisciplinary education. Only an interdisciplinary education will allow students to see how disciplines are interrelated. Only an interdisciplinary education will create interdisciplinary thinkers who can create more value in and for the world. We need chemists who love Bach, biologists who love Goethe, businessmen who love Aristotle. We need philosophers who love biology and business and artists who love physics and economics. Only with an interdisciplinary education will we have people who think this way, across the disciplines, through the disciplines, complexifying their thought so new things can be thought. What would the world be like if our politicians actually knew and understood the economics of Ludwig von Mises, the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, the plays of Sophocles, the linguistics of Chomsky and Pinker, the novels of Kafka, chaos theory, systems theory, evolutionary theory, the poetry of William Blake, and ancient Greek history? Could interdisciplinary thinking finally give the country great statesmen instead of demagogues? Could an interdisciplinary education create more ethical businessmen, since they would understand that there is not a conflict between ethical action and profit? Imagine a businessman who knew the value of a dollar, of his workers, and of a van Gogh. Imagine what an interdisciplinary education would do for teachers. Wouldn’t it make them – teachers? How can teachers teach when they know nothing? Teachers more than anyone should be interdisciplinary. They should know and understand the reason for having an interdisciplinary education, to understand and know the connections between the disciplines, and be able to help their students understand the importance of all the disciplines for understanding any one of the disciplines.

What is interdisciplinarity? It is not multidisciplinarity, where we have just a hodgepodge. It is not having students doing writing exercises in math class, or quadratic equations in literature class. That does not show students how the disciplines are interrelated. To have an interdisciplinary education, students need to know the value of each of the disciplines, how they relate to each other, the history of the disciplines. Students do not know how modern science arose out of natural philosophy and religion. Misunderstandings of ideas such as entropy make people reject evolution on the argument that more complexity could not arise in an entropic universe, where everything is becoming more random (this is, incidentally, not quite what entropy is about). We need to teach students about systems and complexity and information, so they can see how all disciplines relate to one another. This will give students an interdisciplinary education. And they will need an interdisciplinary education if they want to have an edge in this increasingly interdisciplinary world.

On the Importance of Shakespeare

Shakespeare has been under attack for a long time in our universities. Yes, he’s still mostly required reading, especially in high school (where he’s least likely to be understood), but many question whether or not Shakespeare deserves the attention he gets, primarily because he’s one of those infamous Dead White Males who haunt the hallowed halls of academic Hell. Which is why so many English departments no longer even require taking a course on Shakespeare.

If you believe that the past is nothing more than a hindrance to creating new futures, especially utopian futures, then it makes sense to just stop reading some Renaissance-era British poet-playwright–or anyone who died before you were born. But if the past is in fact important to understanding the present, and to creating a viable future, then how can you just ignore tradition?

Why, then is reading Shakespeare important?

We can start with the fact that Shakespeare introduced over 1700 words to the English language. With over 170,000 words in the English language, that means Shakespeare introduced 1% of the words we use in the English language today. People don’t seem very interested in words today, and treat them the same way as they do anything from the past: insisting we can just ignore their past (etymology, origins, etc.) because the only thing that matters is how we use words today. The problem is that words aren’t completely set free from their past–and studying the origins and relations of words can help you understand much greater things than mere vocabulary. What, for example, does it say to you that “discipline” and “disciple” (which means “pupil”) have the same origin?

And then there is the ever-growing range of Shakespeare’s influence. We’re not just talking about movie adaptations, though we could talk about that for a long time. Just consider the use of Shakespeare quotes (or near-quotes) for titles: The Sound the the Fury by William Faulkner (from King Lear);  the choice in the first English translations of Proust to use a quote from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets for the English title, Remembrance of Things Past; and many others.

And then, there are idioms. Ever use the phrase, “All that glitters is not gold”? How about “All’s well that ends well”? Have you ever waited with “bated breath”? Did you ever “refuse to budge an inch”? If you think it’s “a foregone conclusion” that “even the Devil can quote scripture” is found in the Bible, you would be wrong. It’s found in The Merchant of Venice. Providing more would be “too much of a good thing,” so let me simply refer you to a good source of such quotes here.

And that’s not all. With Sister Miriam Joseph you can learn how to learn the trivium through Shakespeare, with Frederick Turner you can learn economics through Shakespeare, and Howard Bloom even goes so far as to suggest that Shakespeare is responsible for the invention of the human.

Whether or not Bloom goes a tad too far in his claim, the fact is Shakespeare is important because his works have helped create Modern English; British culture, the Western cultures, the cultures of all of Britain’s former colonies, and, yes, world culture; and they can continue to educate us in a variety of ways. And when you see them performed, you also realize just how much fun they are.

This isn’t just a bunch of bardolotry. No, Shakespeare is woven into our culture, through the influence his works have had on our literature, theater, and films. Shakespeare is woven into our language, in our words and our idioms. If you don’t know your Shakespeare, you cannot call yourself educated–and not just in the formal sense. You cannot say you understand the language you use or the culture in which you live.

If “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past” (George Orwell, 19841984; not original to Rage Against the Machine), then you have to ask yourself why it is that English departments want to control that past in such a way as to exclude Shakespeare? What is so scary about him that they see him as a threat? For you may rest assured that if one seeks to censor someone’s works, directly or indirectly, it’s because they fear the influence. They fear the connections that will be made.

Did Shakespeare invent the human? Perhaps not. But perhaps he did help create the liberal human–and it’s precisely that which the illiberal forces in our culture and in our universities fear from knowing Shakespeare.

Illiberal Education in Our Universities

The people complaining about the illiberal tactics of the postmodern opponents of learning anything at all about Western civilization are no longer just the conservatives. Some on the left are finally joining in. It turns out left-wing professors who happen to think there is in fact something valuable to be learned from Western ideas, art, and literature don’t like having their voices excluded, either. As well they shouldn’t.

Postmodernism has been fundamentally illiberal from the beginning. It is, after all, a synthesis of two illiberal ideologies: Marxism and fascism. It fuses Marxists like Marcuse and the Marxist Frankfurt School with the Nazi philosopher Heidegger and those he influenced. We should thus not be surprised that the end-result of postmodern ideology (vs. postmodern ideas, some of which are in fact valid) are illiberal attempts to shut down speakers with whom one doesn’t agree and opposing freedom of speech.

Worse, many go so far as to say that speech is violence. The problem of course is that equating speech and violence makes real violence acceptable. If someone is violent against you, you can defend yourself with defensive violence or get the police to engage in retaliatory violence on your behalf. In other words, equating speech with violence justifies attacking people just for speaking, or sending the police in to shoot them because you disagree with what that person has to say. This is the very foundation of dictatorship.

Our universities are guilty of creating citizens ready for dictatorship—not just ready, but demanding such actions from the administrations of the universities and, eventually, of the government itself. It’s a long, complex history, but it may not surprise people to learn that its roots, like Marxism and National Socialism, are to be found in Germany. The U.S. has adopted German/Prussian educational structures, and those structures are the roots of many of  our problems. Institutions matter, and if we’re going to change our culture to overcome the problems beginning to arise in our, we’re going to have to change many of those institutions. Our education, k-12 and the university system, is at the core of what needs to fundamentally change.

If there’s any good news, it’s that many more outlets and ideologies are fighting against the rise of postmodern illiberalism and recognizing the poison that is postmodern ideology on our campuses. But I promise you, the fight has just begun. And unfortunately, there are other illiberal elements arising to fight postmodern leftism. The alt.right, for example, is proof that the enemy of your enemy can definitely be your enemy. Fighting fire with fire will burn the entire forest down.