Steven Yao, “Meaning, Value, Ethics: Asking Questions about the Humanities”

What “value” do the Humanities offer that is important, useful, or even distinctive? What skills or abilities are developed through humanistic thought in particular? And if there are skills or abilities distinctive to humanistic training, do we need those skills or abilities? Or, to put things a bit more sharply in light of our current economic situation: Can we afford them? That is, can we afford to support the Humanities and/or the skills and abilities they foster?

Tough questions, to be sure. And all the more so since we have not been accustomed to having to answer them for a very long time.

Nevertheless, we must have compelling answers to these and other difficult questions if we are going to advocate effectively for the special kinds of work that we do in the Humanities and the importance of that work, its “value” if you will, both for students and for society at large.

Below, I attempt a brief answer to these and related questions. Based on the principles of inclusion and economy, I have arrived at the formulation of Meaning, Value, and Ethics as the most capacious but accurate way to characterize the intellectual domain of the Humanities. I offer what follows as an invitation to further conversation about how we can most effectively advocate for the Humanities and the work we do. I would be happy to elaborate on any of the various points below; but for this initial post, I thought I would try to keep things plain and simple.

Q: Can we afford to support the Humanities?

A: We CAN’T afford NOT to support the Humanities!

Q: Why?

A: The Humanities make up the historic core of the liberal arts. Today, they remain the primary institutional location for posing questions about meaning, value, and ethics. Scholars across the Humanities explore issues of meaning in the broadest sense, from philology to metaphysics, from the meaning of words to the meaning of objects to the meaning of life. We ask questions about literary, artistic, and other kinds of value. We ask questions about the idea of value itself, what it means, and how else it has been thought and might be conceived. As the social expression of these concerns, the Humanities also focus on ethics and the implications of various systems of meaning and value.

No other area of the academy engages with matters of meaning, value, and ethics as directly or as thoroughly as do the Humanities. By itself, the “scientific method” does not have anything to say about the ethics of knowledge acquisition or behavior. This is why we have bodies like the Institutional Review Board, where ethical reasoning plays a central and indispensable role in determining the meaning and value of scientific inquiry. In saying this, I do NOT mean that scientists or other thinkers are not capable of being ethical. But I DO mean that in striving to be ethical, we exercise specifically humanistic forms of thinking in scrutinizing and considering the implications of our individual and collective actions, as well as the implications of other forms of knowledge production.

Thus, abilities and habits of thought learned via the Humanities are needed not only for decisions of personal consequence. They are also necessary for professional success as crucial elements in business and leadership decisions. For the Humanities cultivate abilities of critical judgment, empathy, discernment, interpretation, and ethical reasoning that must be taken into account in even the most practical of circumstances. Political and business leaders have repeatedly stressed the importance of cultivating these abilities for achieving success and motivating others.

In the broadest sense, the Humanities explore what it means to be human. It’s a messy and fascinating business that requires patience, persistence, and a dedication to interrogating received ideas and notions of value, a willingness to ask hard and often discomforting questions about meaning, about our obligations to others as well as to ourselves, and about who counts as others and who counts as ourselves. As a result, among other things, Humanists consider again and again the meaning and value of great works of art and culture from the past. And this perspective enriches and informs our understanding of and engagement with the contemporary moment.

At their foundation, the Humanities ask questions about meaning, value, and ethics.
What is the meaning of this word? This artwork? This song? What value inheres in feats of cultural production like dances, poems, or television shows? What makes up the very idea of value? And who gets to decide? How have other people in other places and other times sought to answer that question? These and similar questions are ones posed most frequently and probingly by Humanists.

Hence, the real question is not, “Can we afford to support the Humanities?”

The real question is, rather, “How can we afford NOT to support a form of intellectual inquiry that fosters the ability to ask questions about meaning, value, and ethics?

Steven Yao is Edmund A. LeFevre Professor and Chair of the Department of English and Creative Writing at Hamilton College. He is the author of Translation and the Languages of Modernism (Palgrave 2002) and Foreign Accents: Chinese American Verse from Exclusion to Postethnicity (Oxford 2010), which was selected as the best book in literary study by the Association for Asian American Studies in 2012. He is also co-editor of Sinographies: Writing China (Minnesota 2008), Pacific Rim Modernisms (Toronto 2009), and Ezra Pound and Education (2012). Yao has held research fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies and the Stanford Humanities Center. Most recently, he was served as American Council on Education Fellow at Holy Names University in Oakland, CA during the 2012-13 academic year.

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