Studying one Thing to Learn Another
I quite enjoyed Will’s post asking just what it is that an academic degree confers, and was struck by this sentence in particular:
“I’m told that my undergraduate experience provides a framework for critical thinking that is readily applicable to just about any field, but of course this is impossible to quantify.”
Maybe Will made a mistake here in touching on something that I’ve thought (too) much about, but it’s a strange claim and one that I’ve heard my department repeat mantra-like, and even heard falling from my own mouth: Studying history will give the student useful critical thinking skills that they can use later in life. I think we often forget how odd it is to sell the study of a body of knowledge by emphasizing the skills that are supposedly imbued in the course of studying that body of knowledge. It’s a bit like saying, “Studying geology will give the student a better ability to tell jokes”.
It might be tempting to see this tendency to instrumentalize the study of the humanities as a contemporary crisis and part of an overall decline of the academy- well, it could be the latter, but it goes back, from what I understand, to the late 1800s, and increased pressure from industrialists on the academy to produce an apt managerial class. Furthermore, critics of America might be surprised to hear that academic historians claim this instrumentalization of the humanities (skills over knowledge) goes back directly to the German university model. The pressure on American universities increased, not surprisingly, after WWII.
It’s nothing new, but still a bit strange how humanities departments try to sell themselves based on their ability to sneak in other skills. I mean, we live in a historical context, so having a sense of history is actually very useful in itself in making sense of the present: how many political debates have we had on this site that have come down to different interpretations of history? In life, I encounter a startling number of people now who seem to live in an eternal present, in which their society exists, for them, outside of any historical context whatsoever and the past is an amorphous grey zone with horse-drawn buggies. I wonder just how they could participate in their own democracy when they have no sense of how it came into being or how other societies have functioned. They have no historical parallels to draw from. It is never shocking to me to read about totalitarian states that began by rewriting, and finally erasing the historical record in the public mind. Those who do not remember the past have less space to oppose the present.
It’s not just history: all of the humanities, to some extent, give you a broader understanding of the world around you- the world of human beings- and the world within you. Reading the Iliad teaches you about the Archaic age and Homeric epics; yet, it also talks to you about what men do when their own desires come into conflict with those of the larger society. Studying Freud allows you to start writing your own psychological history. Ideally, all of the humanities do this- they help you to create your own guide to being human. Even more ideally, academic departments are a place that society allows for its slow and patient thinking to be done. This might mean that the humanities have to be both a genuine and eternal counterculture in an apolitical sense, and a bastion of cultural conservatism.
So be it. We can’t avoid falling out of step with the larger culture. The humanities are rooted in the study of texts, which will increasingly put them at odds with a society in which reading is becoming vestigial. People who grow up detached from any cultural/historical context will find academics increasingly alien, if not offensive to their sensibilities. Attacks on the humanities will increase. The way to address them isn’t to trick the public into thinking they’re getting something else for their money, but to repeatedly defend the right of academics to hang back from the passions of the day- to be less-than-useful for whatever desires the society wants satisfied today. That means, by the way, academics in the humanities must drop altogether the pretense of political “activism” and, in their public role, become much more explicitly apolitical and inactivist; conversely, they need to start expressing quite loudly the worth of this eternal hanging back, instead of flattering and placating a culture that is arguably no culture.
1. She might well disagree with the argument here, but in some of the ideas I hear echoes of Margaret Soltan and wanted to tip my hat. I hear other echoes too, but all the others are echoing people who are dead.