Why All Professions Should Care About the Humanities

In a recent piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Kira Hamman, an instructor of mathematics at Penn State Mont Alto, emphasizes three reasons why scientists should care about attacks on the humanities. She argues first that scientists, because they aren’t under attack, can lend credibility to those disciplines under attack; second, that the sciences and the humanities aren’t as different as many who attack the humanities suppose; and third, that the value of a pursuit should not be so stringently tied to its economic usefulness: “Knowledge and understanding can, and should, be pursued along many paths. The degradation of certain paths in favor of others that pay better will, eventually, degrade the entire pursuit.”

Hamman’s basic premise here is that those in the STEM disciplines should defend the value of the humanities because, in reality, the two cultures are not really that different. This, for me, is her most powerful point: “Both the sciences and the humanities require deep creativity and intellectualism, an ability and desire to use reason, and a willingness to change your mind. When they attack the humanities, they are attacking all of us, they just don’t understand enough science to know it.” Often, attacks on the perceived uselessness of the humanities are, at base, political attacks on the values of intellectualism and basic research, values important to the sciences as well. As Hamman points out, to criticize the humanities as useless is to criticize intellectual endeavor itself.

Yet attacks on the humanities extend deeper than disdain for seemingly obscure basic research. Various “applied” professional humanities fields – particularly law – are under attack as well, mainly because the economic models that supported these professions in the past are crumbling. And this is not even necessarily restricted to professional fields associated with the humanities: it’s happening in medicine as well. The casualization of all labor – “even” seemingly “protected” professional, white-collar (and overwhelmingly white) labor – is increasingly business as usual (these jobs, and the people who do them, are obviously only the latest to be affected: read this, via this).

This is one of the main reasons why those in STEM disciplines should care about the humanities: what is perhaps most visibly happening to the humanities is not actually restricted to the humanities at all. Attacks on the humanities are often convenient ways to discredit non-monetized basic research and “fluffy” intellectual pursuits, but these attacks are a cover for the casualization of professional labor happening in many different fields today. It may be happening most visibly in higher education, but higher education has been a bellwether for some time now.

Simply put, the critique of the humanities as useless cannot be separated from a larger movement to devalue a wide range of professional labor. Such devaluation raises the already high barriers for entry into these jobs, making them ever-more inaccessible for most people, particularly for people who aren’t white, male, and middle-class. Why should scientists, lawyers, and doctors care about the humanities? Because what’s happening to professors in the humanities will happen/is happening to them, too.

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