RS#36: Why should we care about teaching the humanities?

Episode #36 of the Rationally Speaking podcast is out, and this one’s a lively debate between me and Massimo about the value of humanities departments in universities. While I don’t deny the huge amount of enjoyment we get from arts and literature, I express skepticism about many of the typical justifications for requiring humanities courses. Those justifications strike me as either (1) overly vague and subjective (“the humanities make you a complete person”) or (2) making contrived claims about the practical benefits of studying the arts (“the humanities build critical thinking skills”) to which I usually want to reply, “If that’s your goal, there are much more direct ways to pursue it than studying literature.”

Rationally Speaking #36: Why should we care about teaching the humanities?

6 Responses to RS#36: Why should we care about teaching the humanities?

  1. Graham says:

    This might be my favorite episode of your podcast yet, largely because the value of humanities is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, and you two addressed a lot of thoughts I’d been having, and brought up some I hadn’t considered. I have a few comments.

    Although the debate is framed as “the value of humanities” it really ends up being about the value of teaching literature specifically, not humanities in general. I actually don’t mind this, though, because I already agreed with the position you both seem to have; that there’s obvious value in teaching philosophy, politics, history, etc. But I haven’t been able to come up with a good argument for teaching literature.

    Prior to listening to this, I was more firmly in your camp, but Massimo made some good points.. Although I agree that a lot of the justifications given for humanities were wishy-washy and vague, and that bothers me too, Massimo has a point that there may be legitimate value in a humanities education that’s inherently difficult to define and can’t be measured in any real way. For a comparison, I think a lot of the traits that make someone a good parent are difficult to define and can’t be measured either. I can’t think of a standardized way to measure how good you’ll be at instilling your children with a sense of self-worth or self-confidence, but those are arguable some of the most important parts of being a parent.

    That being said, I’m still not really convinced that teaching literature has some inherent value that can’t be derived at least as effectively in other subjects. Massimo brings up comparative lit as a good way to learn about culture in other times and other parts of the world, but I think you can get that type of education just as well in anthropology and history classes. And I agreed with you that literature classes can encourage students to think in ways that can be detrimental to critical thinking in general, such as picking a position and then looking for supporting evidence. Another problem I have with scholarship in English departments is that a lot of it seems to be focused on a pet peeve we share, which is essentially arguing about definitions, and not characteristics of things. I’ve noticed a tendency in both lit majors and professors to focus on definitions in arguments and it always drives me nuts. So anyway, I think the valuable aspects of studying literature can be covered well in other subjects, and some of those pitfalls can be avoided.

    Also I’d like to thank you for your pick. I listened to an interview with a political scientist a few years ago who mentioned that charitable organizations who work in autocratic countries essentially have to pay bribes to the government to be allowed to operate in the countries, and the bribes usually amount to over 90% of the charity money! Since then, I’ve been annoyed with the lack of good information about how much charities actually help, so that site is right up my alley.

    All in all, thanks to you and Massimo for a great episode.

  2. Max says:
    “In 2008, 86% of humanities doctoral recipients ended up in academia, whereas only 15% of engineering doctoral recipients did.”

  3. Max says:

    About basic science, Neil deGrasse Tyson noted that all those fancy scanners in a hospital wouldn’t exist without basic research in physics and astronomy: nuclear magnetic resonance, positron emission tomography, lasers, X-rays, you name it.

    As far as critical thinking, who’s more likely to believe in Creationism, New Age woo, medical quackery, and free energy scams? A humanities major or a science major?

  4. This post is fascinating! As an English teacher, I often have to defend my subject to those who think it should be wiped out altogether. To naysayers, I offer this explanation: Yes, literature does “make you a more well-rounded person” and other such vagueries, but that explanation’s lack of precision doesn’t make it less important. In the book Readicide, Kelly Gallagher discusses how exposure to literature creates exposure to new places, new cultures, and new ideas that the reader has never encountered. These ideas and perspectives mimic one of the most valuable academic function of real life – experience. They allow the reader to experience what they otherwise would not in such a way that they are not unconcsiously learning about the world around them. In fact, exposure to reading has been proven to correlate with an increase in understanding in ALL other subjects, not just English and Language Arts. Understanding builds on prior knowledge and schemas, so exposure to that prior knowledge makes understanding something related to that topic easier and more organic.

    Of course, this begs the question, “Why emphasize the abstract analysis of literature instead of encouraging the consumption and filtration of it?” Unfortunately, the teaching of Language Arts is still very much stuck in the 1950s and 60s, as is educational policy. Yes, I would love to have my students read and discuss and read and discuss, but I have a set of strict standards that they must meet that, while I feel they are fascinating for the study of English, are not essential to their lives if they do not end up studying English. Kelly Gallagher’s book Readicide actually looks at the correlation between school districts cutting novels and plays from the curriculum in order to make room for test preparation, and the subsequent drop in test scores and comprehension (although those tests are pedagogical nightmares in themselves).

    I kind of drifted on the subject here, but my main point is that this exposure to outside experiences and knowledge in a way that mimics life is critical in building a person that uses other their experiences and prior knowledge base to analyze their world and create new connections. On study conducted by E.D. Hirsch in The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children (2006) tested two groups of students for their reading comprehension of a passage about baseball. One group was composed of students who were strong readers but knew little about baseball, while the other group was composed of struggling readers who knew a lot about baseball. The second group scored higher, showing a huge influence on understanding what we read is our prior knowledge and experiences. Now, one might say, “Hey, but when will we ever need to read something random that we don’t have a lot of experience with?” But it is important to remember that this prior knowledge helps in more subtle, less black and white ways; for example, news articles, political and historical events, and even scientific analyses can be enhanced by prior knowledge, which is built by both lived experiences and read experiences (not just from novels and fiction, but non-fiction, newspapers, textbooks, etc.).

    To sum it up, the study of English and Humanities isn’t meant to “build critical thinking skills” as much as it is meant to expose people to other ideas and pieces of knowledge, to build more complex schemas and more interconnected ways of looking at the world. Yes it is vague – but it is also important.

  5. Avery Andrews says:

    Expanding Mrs. Martinez’ point a bit, immersion in literature can give people a greater sense of what it might be like to exist in circumstances very different from what you yourself have grown up in. Homer can for example give a vivid sense of the lifestyle and ways of thinking of warlord-aristocrats and their followers in an oral and kinship-based society, exactly the kind of people we’re having so much trouble with in Afghanistan, etc, right now. Cultural anthropology has an overlapping view, but from a different perspective, and understanding people with different backgrounds from our own is hard enough so that we should consider all available points of view (and anyway, cultural anthropologists spend quite a lot of time investigating the literary and artistic products of the people they study).

    Literature and similar artistic products such as films also clearly carry a great deal of information about the nature of the societies and the concerns of people who produced them, and it is doesn’t make much sense to insist that everybody who thinks it might be useful to find out something about this should have to sit down and figure it all out for themselves, from scratch, especially in the case of older literatures in unfamiliar languages, or mediums such as film where there is a lot of subtle technique under the surface.

    I don’t think this justifies producing huge numbers of humanities PhDs (and even less that they should be trained as postmodernists, as opposed to say, competent readers of Greek, Sanskrit and Old Norse), but it does motivate producing some, and keeping a reasonable range of literature subjects in the undergraduate curriculum.

  6. Ave Valencia says:

    It’s the only way a lot of us students with ADD will ever finish college. 🙂

Leave a Reply