Widgets Magazine


Sense and Nonsense: What’s the Use of the Humanities?

A couple weeks ago, Cornell University President David Skorton made a call for national support for the humanities in light of declining funding and attention. I learned about his campaign when I attended a Faculty Senate meeting last week, where President Hennessy—when asked by a faculty member whether he would participate and what he might say—said only that he was aware of the campaign. I imagine further words from Stanford’s president must ultimately be coming, but I was a little disappointed to see no passion bubble forth when the topic arose. So maybe we really do need to ask ourselves: what’s the use of the humanities?


Let me start with the professional world, the main focus of humanities skeptics. Here’s where their analysis can go wrong: If we picked out a specific professional aim and worked backward to figure out the precise steps to lead us there, rarely would our answer be to read Shakespeare, to research the historical forces behind the fall of the Ottoman Empire, to critically evaluate an argument by Nietzsche. When we tie ourselves to a precise professional objective and lay out the assembly line to get us there, the humanities quickly fall by the wayside. But this is not because they are useless; it is because their use is hidden when we limit our vision to such precise targets.


The humanities broaden and deepen in profound ways because they work on less predictable, and more foundational, human capacities: imaginative power, empathy, intellectual humility, emotional intelligence, critical reading, effective writing, employing analogies to make sense of phenomena, reasoning outside of strict, systematic models. Developing these capacities is a daunting project, but the study of history, literature, philosophy, art and many other humanities disciplines mold them inch by inch.


And these capacities are foundational to everything in our society, both professionally and in a political community. They are the way that CEOs become visionaries, that novelists develop insight, that warring communities begin to earnestly appreciate the historical narratives that have shaped their differences. Indeed, here we can see that the stark lines between specialized fields are a bit artificial. Humanistic capacities are involved in the creativity engineers illustrate when they move beyond problem sets, the human understanding CS majors show when they design a marketable website, the inference-making and reasoning abilities that are necessary at the upper limits of any field of research and the passion motivating productive pursuits. The humanities engage these capacities and experiences head-on. When combined with the necessary training, they place students leaps ahead of anyone who is limited to models and mechanistic thinking.


Yet it can seem pretty silly to seek to justify the humanities by appealing to economic and political concerns, not because the arguments are untrue, but because they seem to desperately devalue the humanities. When I imagine economic interests, for example, as being the only legs the humanities stand on, it is as if universities have embraced King Lear’s description of the aims of his final years of life, as if we are seeking (and forgive my dourness) an “unburdened crawl toward death.”


Two of a university’s most vital aims today are relieving physical and social burdens from the human condition through knowledge creation and preparing students for financially enabled lives. But these aims are tied to a yet deeper one: of humans attaining a standard in life in which we have the chance to live our own versions of the good life. When we remove burdens through economic and social advancement, we are enlivening those central yearnings at the heart of the human experience, giving ourselves a chance to satisfy them.


To be stirred by the beautiful, to feel fulfillment through helping another, to open new windows of fascination, to contribute to what we know, to live a single moment for its own sake and reflectively embrace our lives, to go far beyond an unburdened crawl toward death; humanity’s truest aims are focused on these kinds of human experiences. At institutions meant to deepen human understanding of life and contribute to the world, how can we forget the disciplines that aim at enriching our human experience?


Robert Musil once described the soul as “that which sneaks off at the mention of algebraic series.” The humanities at least go beyond those series, seeking to remind us that the subjective human experience survives alongside objective models of behavior and phenomena. In this sense, one might think of the humanities as the soul of a university, that which motivates all the rest. Maybe some parts of the soul are getting too expensive. But if that is true, we are really in a mess.


Send Aysha your comments at abagchi@stanford.edu.