The Value of the Humanities: David Palumbo-Liu and Ian Bogost

Stanford Professor of Comparative Literature David Palumbo-Liu has recently written a piece on his blog entitled “Why the Humanities are Indispensable.” In this post, Palumbo-Liu discusses the “crisis” in the humanities and claims, “While people say the humanities are in crisis, I believe it is an institutional crisis: I don’t think there is a ‘crisis’ outside of these institutions and their ‘priorities’ at all. People still care passionately about the humanities even if they do not know it by that name.” Palumbo-Liu makes the more traditional case that the humanities – and, more specifically, literature – teach us to think and reflect “on the human condition,” and that this skill should not to be taken lightly: “Lowering the bar for the humanities, or even dismissing the humanities as not having anything specific to teach us, is not only abrogating our responsibilities as teachers, but also ignoring the very patent evidence that the humanities are our solace and aid in life, and we need them now more than ever.”

Ian Bogost, Professor in the School of Literature, Communication and Culture at Georgia Tech, has written one part of a two-part response to this popular post, entitled “Beyond the Elbow-Patched Playground: Part 1: The Humanities in Public.” Building on Kant’s distinction between the higher and lower faculties – those oriented toward practical reason and those oriented toward theoretical reason, respectively – Bogost criticizes Palumbo-Liu’s defense of the humanities for falling into “the trap” that lies between the higher and lower faculties:

“On the one hand, humanists want to retain a place in the lower faculties, arguing that their work cannot be probed for predictable value. But then on the other hand, humanists constantly claim to have measurable value propositions. And worse yet, those value propositions are always so vague as to be essentially meaningless: ‘critical thinking,’ ‘lifelong learning,’ ‘communication,’ ‘cultural perspectives,’ and so forth. Palumbo-Liu’s ‘solace and aid’ is a reasonable candidate for this list as well.”

Instead, Bogost emphasizes the public mission of the humanities, claiming the humanities “are meant to represent and nurture a populace in the face of the governmental and organizational interests served by the higher faculties. The humanities are meant to be populist rather than statist. They shouldn’t stand ‘against usefulness,’ but rather ‘toward the world.'” He calls for more publicly-engaged humanities scholars, claiming the humanities should orient themselves “toward the world at large, toward things of all kinds and at all scales,” not just toward the letters and arts or inwardly, toward themselves. “The humanities needs more courage and more contact with the world,” he argues; we need to step out of the elbow-patched playground and “extend the practice of humanism into that world.”

2 thoughts on “The Value of the Humanities: David Palumbo-Liu and Ian Bogost

  1. I was taken aback by this article. It creates an antagonism between Ian and myself that does not really exist. I can’t blame this on Lindsay Thomas entirely. Bogost cites a line or two from my blog and then aligns me, on the basis of those two or three lines, to an entire, as Thomas puts it, “traditional” point of view. I will repeat here what I wrote to Bogost–a simple Google search would reveal that I am the co-editor of “Immanuel Wallerstein and the Problem of the World: System, Scale, Culture,” named by the Huffington Post as one of the year’s “Twenty Political Books Overlooked by the Mainstream Press.” My work has be explicitly “engaged” in the world for two decades. My “Asian/American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Frontier” is considered a class in the field of ethnic studies, and probes out the connections between politics and racial formations. I in fact was a founding faculty member of Stanford’s Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity program, now in its tenth year, and have mounted the first community-based learning courses in Asian American studies, and am on the national advisory board of the Manilatown Heritage Foundation. All to say–please do not fall into the misperception of me or my work that Bogost creates. Nothing at all in my blog precludes precisely the kind of engaged political and ethical work that Bogost proposes, and that I have carried out for my entire career.

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