Thursday, June 23, 2011

That Old Humanities Argument

We've all been asked this question before: why study the humanities? Why teach literary criticism? What is the point of learning about things that never happened and inapplicable interpretations? Math and science have certainly been hyped up in the past few years by the presidential administration with the looming economic fears of being uncompetitive in the face of rising powers and the political activism of people who want to see our money spent better.

As an English major in college, I had to struggle with this question myself; I was asked by other people and even had to deal with the prompt in a literary theory class (which I utterly failed at doing.) It is worth noting that a lot of my work in literary theory has been applicable to what I'm engineering now, but that's besides the point to me because I know that it wasn't all that this was about. I certainly see literature as an important metaphysical experiment for philosophers, but I don't know how I feel about philosophers either.

But around a year ago I had read about Stanley Fish's book Save the World On Your Own Time, which apparently* argued that trying to find some political or economic justification for the humanities denigrates it by denying the idea that it may just be good in of itself (does everything really come down to money and survival?)

While I was taking a break today that line of thinking crossed over with all the time that I've spent thinking about Edmund Burke and Nassim Taleb and it dawned on me that I had been missing the obvious for years; that perhaps the importance of literary criticism is in the fact that despite having no explicit justification for it, we still continue to read, teach, analyze and deconstruct stories; value a supposedly "arbitrary" literary canon, ask questions about things that never happened and give interpretations in the absence of right or wrong answers.

To me, asking why we value literature, spend so much time teaching it to students and even have tenured academics who spend their whole life studying it is like asking why we have religion or inauguration ceremonies or act hold doors open for other people. At this point, it's tradition and part of a deeper logic that we can't ever presume to understand--a point made tirelessly by Edmund Burke in the wake of a disastrous French revolution based on simple top-down models. Simply put, I don't think that the world would be better off if we stopped holding doors for other people and I don't think that we'd be better off not studying literature.

On a more concrete note, I think it is possible to glean the value of literary criticism and it is related to the importance of things beyond economic concerns. We live in a world richly populated by cultural phenomena. Being part of that world means understanding our cultural heritage and our shared idea of what it is to be human (cliche, I know, but isn't it true?) Would you refrain from teaching your kid table manners or how to talk to elders?

Whether it's through high school English, Hebrew School or wrestling in the grass with your classmates, we all have and all need rites of passage. Part of the humanities is spiritual training, the rest is something else.


*No, I haven't read it, just making that clear. A second-hand summary did in fact raise some interesting points for me.

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