Robert N. Watson, “Valuing the Humanities”

Many humanities professors — particularly those bludgeoned into submission by service on crisis-in-the-humanities committees — have been insisting lately that we need to become more technological and careerist because the public no longer values what we offer.

But the facts suggest otherwise; and the discrepancy is revealing. What humanities scholars need to do is break the spell of capitalist consumerism by encouraging our fellow citizens to recognize something they already understand, but have been taught to dismiss, ignore, or repress. From this perspective, the Occupy Wall Street collective may be doing the right thing by bearing witness to the arbitrary and parasitic character of the current plutocracy, rather than formulating specific policy demands to feed back into the money-driven legislative system.

Naturally people want their children to have good prospects for employment, and will press those children to aim to achieve that through their education. Yet these parents pay large sums to educate those children outside of vocational-technology settings. Perhaps they sense that, in a world changing ever more rapidly, the rote-learning of specific facts and technologies (encouraged by much current test-based education) is a superhighway to obsolescence. The only durable knowledge will be that which provides adaptability, helps assimilate complexity, and refines the skill of interpretation rather than memorization. Whatever develops a creative but disciplined mind, and a heart open to other people and an ability to communicate with them, is going to produce a better life. In fact, with technologies and economies transforming as quickly as they do these days, and with cultures in such critical collisions, those may be the only skills we can be confident are going to be valuable, wherever and whenever that student runs into an opportunity or a crisis.

These parents may reflexively parrot back the notion that monetary prospects are finally “the bottom line” — the only reasonable goal and reliable measure of the worth of any enterprise — but there seems to be something deeper down than that line, and it is not written in numbers. To adapt a point made by Stefan Collini, would many of them say, “Looking back at my life, my happiest moments were … the times I made the most profit for my corporate employers. I love my children because … they are going to be job-creators and active consumers to keep the economy humming. I’m so glad I took them to Disneyland because … the tourist industry is crucial to California’s tax-base. Sometimes it’s good to sit around with a few friends and have some laughs because … it primes us to enjoy sit-coms where advertising will help us decide what to buy. My family really likes to go to the beach because … it might help the kids find work someday as oceanographers. I enjoy listening to the Beatles because … their records were huge sellers.”

This dangerous distortion of our value comes largely from right-wingers who assume that a business-consultancy model provides the true measure of all things — or that such a model can be used to impose political controls that would otherwise be resisted on the grounds of academic freedom. That distortion is unwittingly abetted, however, by left-wing colleagues who also take a presentist-instrumentalist view: the study of literature becomes primarily a tool for provoking students to redistribute wealth, rather than to enable them to accumulate it. While I share many of their progressive political beliefs, I still worry that such victories will be marginal, transient, and even pyrrhic, by narrowing the potential of art to create cultural mutation, and rousing the political immune system against a multivalent subversive force that might otherwise evade the reactionary sensors.

Clearly some scholars feel this careerist or presentist project is the way to revive a dying field of study; but others of us suspect it is instead the way a field still fundamentally valuable and widely valued has been committing suicide. The impression that we now look at art mostly to seek out and transmit confirmations of our sociopolitical beliefs — and I wish our University of California Humanities Research Institute seemed less determined to provoke that impression — damages our ability to offer many kinds of liberation.

The University of California as a whole is reportedly considering funding its research centers along the model of the Browne Report that is already subjugating British scholars to an elaborate, faux-quantitative, “rational,” market-driven financial hierarchy which would be especially negligent toward the humanities. The job of a humanities professor in the 21st century therefore involves reminding people — students and grantors alike — something they already sense about the value of life, something that helps free them from parasitic memes, xenophobic reflexes, and narrow-spirited, zero-sum competition.

If humanities scholars are selective transmitters of culture, rendering the good audible and the bad questionable, then we first have to try to understand what culture is good for: how it can bring us together but also how it allows us to preserve some valuable differences, enables us to be alone without loneliness, and encourages us (as John Keats wrote in praising Shakespeare) to remain “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Professor Robert N. Watson received his degrees from Yale and Stanford, and was on the faculty at Harvard for six years before coming to UCLA in 1986, where he has served as Chair of the Department of English, Chair of the Faculty of the College of Letters and Science, and Associate Vice-Provost for Educational Innovation. He was awarded UCLA’s Distinguished Teaching Prize and the Gold Shield Faculty Prize for outstanding achievements in research, teaching, and public service, as well as Guggenheim and NEH fellowships, and was recently appointed as the first holder of UCLA’s Neikirk Chair for Innovative Undergraduate Education. He is recently back from a year in England as a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge University. Professor Watson’s latest book, Back to Nature, won prizes for both the year’s best work of environmental criticism and the year’s best book on English Renaissance literature. His previous books studied Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and the fear of death in Jacobean culture. He has published scholarly articles on topics ranging from Elizabethan horsemanship to Thomas Pynchon, and poetry in the New Yorker and other literary journals.

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