The Humanities are Still Important (Supreme Court Edition)
What do Nabokov, Hemingway, Montesquieu, Wittgenstein, Stendhal, Proust, Shakespeare, Dickens, Faulkner, Solzhenitsyn, and Trollope have in common? They’re all readily mentioned by Supreme Court Justices when asked about influences on their decisions and their style of writing. There’s no case here to be made about how literature and philosophy are important because they’re the guiding forces behind Supreme Court decisions. But these interviews show that literature does not merely serve to entertain the Justices: it also has framed their way of looking at the world, and, more importantly, the ways in which they approach composing decisions.
Consider the list of writers above—Justice Kennedy jokes that his list of influences sounds like he’s recommending a Great Books course—but I don’t believe that’s the most important connection among them. For the most part, they are authors whose writing deals with understanding the human condition in light of changing social and societal conditions. It makes sense, and is actually reassuring, to see Faulkner and Proust representing Modernism rather than Joyce and Woolf. (Those whose interests lie more in the realm of language and wordplay than people have a focus on the precision and meaning of language—certainly what you’d expect a group of lawyers to find at least relevant.) While those changes and those societies may no longer be our own, the ways in which Dickens and Shakespeare approached them have remained relevant because they can continue to frame the ways we approach our society and the changes it witnesses. The literary influence on court decisions, I suspect, is not one of referential hide-and-seek, but one of such framing. Finding a nugget of Hamlet or Great Expectations in a decision may, for some, be a moment of delight or amusement—but its presence and the manner of its inclusion also help to develop and clarify the attitude and intention of both the decision and its author.
Understanding our literary tradition becomes important to understanding our legal tradition—and ultimately, our political tradition. These three, in the end, are not so distinct, or at least shouldn’t be thought so. They are all components of a broader (though not overarching) cultural tradition.
Studying the liberal arts, traditionally understood, may not guarantee your ideal job directly after graduation—though, as Matt Yglesias points out, you learn more while studying them and the aforementioned data don’t include effect on career post-entry—but they aren’t supposed to. Citizenship, however, requires a knowledge of our various traditions. This isn’t to say that majoring in engineering or business is antithetical to good citizenship (we need engineers! and businessmen!), but that our universities should ensure that all their graduates are able to better understand where we are now, and have some sense of where we are going. That is, even engineering and business majors need to be educated in where we have been.