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The humanities don’t need defending, but I’m defending them anyway

Alex Bayer wrote a wonderful series of columns on the worth of the humanities in this paper a few weeks back.  What she said got me thinking – but what really got me thinking is why she felt she had to say it in the first place.

Read through the online comments section of nearly any article on the study of the humanities, and you’re almost guaranteed to find ideologically committed naysayers: those who say the humanities produce nothing of economic value, make no one richer or better off or more technologically advanced.

What perplexes me is why this is a line of attack that anyone feels sufficiently compelling to be worth taking up a defense against.

Attacks on the humanities often take the following form:

1) A humanities degree doesn’t produce money, either in the form of a job for yourself or something that produces economic value for someone else.

2) Therefore, you shouldn’t major in the humanities.

But this argument makes a colossal assumption that people seem to miss. This argument assumes that the guiding factor in choosing a major should be how much economic value it produces.

For some people – people with families to support after college, for instance – that consideration may indeed be the proper guiding light.

But for many others, that argument is laughable on its face.

Money isn’t morally good in and of itself. Money is good because it produces happiness and increased human welfare; a pile of dollar bills on a deserted, inaccessible island does no one any good. Generally speaking, the better off we are, the happier we tend to be; hence the value of modern medicine, antibiotics, warm clothes, durable housing and all the other accoutrements of modernity that come with the increased prosperity enabled by technological and economic advance.

But if those subjects’ value – the value of engineering, of medicine, of economics – lies not in their own intrinsic qualities but in the amount of happiness they produce, then surely subjects that produce equal amounts of happiness are equally valuable?

I feel a great deal of happiness while watching a great film, reading a great novel or listening to a great song. Those items are products of minds schooled not in facts and figures but in the human experience, in the feelings and drives that make us tick and give our lives meaning.

Sure, that film is shown on a screen that an engineer built, that book was printed from a machine an engineer designed, that song plays on the iPod an engineer crafted.

But what value is there in blank screens, in presses churning out empty pages, in iPods playing hours upon hours of everlasting static?

Better to say that our lives are worth living because we all have skills and interests that can work in tandem to improve and better the world. Better to say that if we do not encourage the flourishing of both technical and nontechnical disciplines, we risk missing out on essential facets of the reason we are here on Earth.

“Some of the most valuable work needed by civilization,” declared Theodore Roosevelt in 1910, “is essentially non-remunerative in its character.” The president knew that what made his nation a nation worth leading were not merely its bellows and smokestacks, its factories and railcars, its steamships and telegraph lines. It was the higher lives those things had enabled his citizens to lead.

“While not merely acknowledging but insisting,” continued Roosevelt, “upon the fact that there must be a basis of material well-being for the individual as for the nation, let us with equal emphasis insist that this material well-being represents nothing but the foundation, and that the foundation, though indispensable, is worthless unless upon it is raised the superstructure of a higher life.”

The humanities are the wellspring of that higher life. They are what we do once the scientists have kept us safe from disease, the engineers have kept us safe from natural disasters and the police officers and lawyers have kept us safe from each other and from our government.

They are the reason we tend to read “Harry Potter” to make us happy and not investment statistics, watch “Casablanca” instead of the stock ticker, measure the worth of our days in smiles and laughs rather than dollars accumulated (although dollars well spent can certainly produce smiles and laughs).

The humanities don’t need defending. They are just as intrinsically valuable as any other subject that makes human life better and that empowers us to reach the higher planes of understanding toward which this University reaches.

Make Miles happy and email him at [email protected]

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