n+1: Why Bother? Review of Humanities Manifestos

In the most recent issue of the literary magazine n+1, Nicolas Dames reviews three recent books on the value of the humanities, Terry Castle’s The Professor and Other Writings, Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University, and Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. The review provides detailed and insightful assessments of each work, whose defenses of the humanities range from an emphasis on the value of flexible and creative thinking to business (Nussbaum) to tracing the many histories that have produced the “humanities crisis” in universities today (Menand) to personal insights about why one studies the humanities in the first place (Castle). In the end, Dames seems to side with Castle’s approach, calling for more “novelistic” defenses of the humanities:

Perhaps the humanities, in their current plight, need to be novelistic again. Not necessarily in their fictional mode, such as the moribund campus novel genre with its essentially demystifying comedy, but the novelistic ability to marshal narratives and details that give us back some sense of why the humanities exist for individuals?—?how, to put it bluntly, they still rescue lives. One doesn’t enter the academy to become a disillusioned professional (although that will happen along the way). One doesn’t enter it to equip businesses with flexible analytic intellects (although that will also happen). One enters it, shamefacedly and unhappily, perhaps, but enters it nonetheless, in order to devote oneself to something greater than personal resentments?—?to salvational or transformational modes of thought. Because, put another way, all the grievances that take aim at higher education express real suffering, and that suffering has causes and modes of expression older than most sufferers usually know. The humanities should be, if not their solace, then their weapons of choice. Prig and cynic and naïf she may be, but the newly minted academic knows this?—?after all, she most likely came from their midst?—?and one good way of explaining as much is to explain how that knowledge feels. Without such explanations, which might soften resentment into curiosity or sympathy, there may soon be very little left to be embarrassed about.

Read the full review at n+1.

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