Humanistis of the World, Unite!

The American Association of Arts and Sciences has released a new report that sounds the alarm perilous of the humanities and social sciences. It’s an important step toward a general revival of respect and admiration for the humanities in our current culture, but it bears the distinct mark of its origin in a Congressional mandate and the generally progressive tenor of its arguments.

The report, for example, emphasizes the importance of humanistic education to a successful workforce, national security, and “American greatness” generally. It begins:

“As we strive to create a more civil public discourse, a more adaptable and creative workforce, and a more secure nation the humanities and social sciences are the heart of the matter, the keeper of the republic—a source of national memory and civic vigor, cultural understanding and communication, individual fulfillment and the ideals we hold in common.” (p. 11)

The trend continues with rhetorical questions like “Who will lead America into a bright future?” (humanistically educated leaders, of course). The tone shouldn’t surprise anyone–that’s the kind of reasoning necessary to convince a broad public coalition. And what’s more, consider this sentence:

“We live in a world characterized by change—and therefore a world
dependent on the humanities and social sciences. How do we understand and manage change if we have no notion of the past? How do we understand ourselves if we have no notion of a society, culture, or world different from the one in which we live?” (p. 15)

That’s one view of the humanities certainly! One of the tricky things about defending the humanities is their intensely self-reflective character. The humanities put humanistic inquiry itself under a microscope. As a result, there is significant disagreement within the humanities about what the humanities are, and therefore disagreement about why they are worth defending.

As a consequence, the report may chagrin humanists who respectfully dissent from the historicism (i.e. that the process, speed, direction, etc. of historical change are the proper subject of humanistic inquiry) espoused in the report. In particular, there is a long tradition going back to Plato that sees the humanities as a form of self-perfection. Does that mean these dissenters should reject the report?

No. Public defenses of the humanities must of necessity be somewhat self-effacing precisely because the internal bickerings and disagreements that characterize any humanistic tradition undermine a unified public front against the common enemies of scientism, bastardized utilitarianism, and ignorance. And while critics of the report may correctly criticize its instrumentalism and distasteful elements, they shouldn’t put their sense of pride ahead of their love for the humanities. And in this respect, the AAAS report represents an vital step toward renewed appreciation of the humanities’ in public life. It puts a spotlight on a problem that all defenders of the humanities should appreciate even if they dissent on the particulars. Criticizing a necessary and useful public report wholesale is only self-defeating.

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