National Humanities Report Reinforces Stereotypes about the Humanities

By Lindsay Thomas

Originally posted on Remaking the University:

In June 2013, the American Academy of Arts & Science’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences released “The Heart of the Matter,” a report meant to “advance a dialogue on the importance of the humanities and social sciences to the future of our nation” and to inform policy makers and the general public about how best to support the humanities and social sciences (6).

Unfortunately, the report repeats some familiar tropes about the value of the humanities: tropes that ultimately may do more harm than good in advocating for the value of the humanities.

One trope on which the report spends much of its time is that the humanities are valuable because they teach us useful skills like “skills in communication, interpretation, linking and synthesizing domains of knowledge, and imbuing facts with meaning and value” (35). The report emphasizes that these are the skills employers today want because they are “essential for the inventiveness, insights, [and] career flexibility… of the American people.” (18-19, 33). In this view, the humanities are important primarily because they teach students skills that will be valuable for their future employment in other fields.

Another familiar trope the report repeats is that the humanities are valuable because they are the foundation of our cultural heritage and because learning to appreciate this heritage leads to personal fulfillment. The report claims, for example, that “millions depend on these disciplines in their daily lives as a perpetual source of pleasure and enrichment” (49). This understanding of the value of the humanities is so familiar that the title of the report itself gestures to it: the humanities are “the heart of the matter, the keeper of the republic – a source of national memory and civic vigor, cultural understanding and communication, individual fulfillment and the ideals we hold in common” (9). In this view, the humanities are important because they preserve our cultural heritage by teaching students skills of appreciation.

There’s a lot that has been said here about the limitations of this narrow understanding of the value of the humanities. There’s also a lot that has been said about the value of instrumentalism in general. However, the problem here isn’t that the report frames the value of the humanities as utilitarian. This is a familiar argument on which many defenders of the humanities have staked their claims for years, and it’s not wrong. The humanities do teach students skills with practical importance, they do teach us to better understand other cultures and ourselves, they do show us how to live more pleasurable lives.

Rather, the problem here – which is by no means limited to this report – is that the humanities in both their employment and heritage forms are framed according to a particular understanding of utilitarianism: the transmission of specific skills. Defining the value of the humanities solely and most emphatically in terms of the skills they can teach empties humanities disciplines of their content. The implication is that the most important thing humanities disciplines can do is to teach such skills, and whatever discipline-specific knowledge they may also transmit along the way is simply a byproduct of teaching this set of skills.

The report’s emphasis on skills over content occurs even when it specifically addresses humanities research, or the production of knowledge, itself. For example, the most sustained definition “The Heart of the Matter” gives of humanities research is that research in the humanities “enables us to see the world from different points of view so that we may better understand ourselves” (38). This definition frames the purpose of humanities research as helping us to broaden our perspective and to understand ourselves better, not as making new discoveries and producing new knowledge about our past and our present. Such a definition, again, reduces the production of complex humanistic knowledge to the transmission of generally applicable skill-sets. This reaffirms one of the major criticisms leveled at the humanities today: that the subjects humanists study are impractical, useless, and unimportant. By defending the value of the humanities on the grounds that the most important thing humanities disciplines do is teach important skills, we concede the point that the specific knowledge humanistic disciplines produce is unimportant.

If we want to defend the humanities as academic disciplines – if we want to defend the university itself as the place where academic research happens – we need to alter this framing of the humanities. What would it look like to defend and advocate for the specific knowledge humanities disciplines produce, for basic research in the humanities? We could take our cue from the sciences here, which have been doing this kind of advocacy work for a long time. For example, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has produced a poster that features a list of “29 Breakthroughs” the lab has made possible. These range from basic research like the discovery of dark energy to more applied work like the invention of a faster and cheaper water purifier. Theoretical advances in dark energy are not immediately “useful” in the sense that they aren’t currently being used in any applications, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have use value. This strategy is effective because it intersperses less immediately practical theoretical advances among more recognizably practical, high-impact work, showing the value of the full range of scientific research. Could we develop something similar for the humanities? Could we develop posters that feature, for example, high-impact or more immediately practical work in the humanities like the discovery of previously unread letters written by Benjamin Franklin or projects like Timeslips, which aims to improve the lives of people with Alzheimer’s through storytelling, alongside more theoretical advances in gender theory or topic modeling?

The humanities teach students valuable skills, yes, but they also produce valuable knowledge about the world, knowledge that is not always immediately “useful” but that has use value nonetheless. It’s time we started advocating for this knowledge itself – and its usefulness for our world – as a cornerstone of what the humanities can teach us and of what humanists do.

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