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The Humanties are Useless—Can This Be Their Saving Grace?


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Writing for Pacific Standard, historian James McWilliams asserts that the humanities, which have faced declining budgets and shrinking enrolled in universities across the globe in recent years, will never prove their “usefulness” to universities or the world at large in the same way that computer science or engineering can. And they shouldn’t try, because this kind of measurement completely misunderstands what the humanities are for. Read an excerpt from McWilliams’s piece below, or the full text here.

Justin Stover ultimately rests his “non-case” for the humanities on two important observations. The first is that humanists comprise a sort of “class” that does what it does because we enjoy the arts and want others to enjoy the arts too. We’re not interested in being relevant so much as we are interested in being emulated or having our work consumed for pleasure.

“Humanists,” Stover writes, “are doing what they have always done, trying to bring students into a class loosely defined around a broad constellation of judgment and tastes.” I think this is exactly right. When I teach undergraduates Thoreau and Emerson, I want them to enjoy Thoreau and Emerson. I want to influence them to explore the world of ideas because doing so is an inherently pleasurable (and financially cheap) thing to do. I guess you could say that I want them to emulate me.

Whatever beneficial “outcomes”—an ominous buzzword in our world—follow from that enjoyment is gravy on the educational feast. But measurable outcomes are not what I’m after. Scholars in the humanities who seek to be “relevant” end up kowtowing to commerce in ways that are, frankly, embarrassing.

Image: The Barker Center, home to the English department at Harvard. Via Harvard Magazine.