Failure of the Humanities

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It’s about this time of year that all the undeclared students start setting up academic counseling appointments to help them make that inevitable decision. I am not a counselor but, as an English major, I have had several occasions to attempt to persuade my peers, friends, and acquaintances to pursue a humanities degree. There are many reasons I give for the benefit of these degrees but I am becoming increasingly convinced that the reason I most often give will probably not pan out.

The skill we are taught to put on a resume after graduation is “critical thinking.” I fear this may not be accurate. With the right dedication a humanities student will certainly learn how to write a decent essay. To do this requires forming an argument but it does not require what I think we mean when we say “critical thinking.” There is very little need to think critically in writing an essay, unless we describe the process a computer might go through when running an algorithm as critical thought.

I would call this sort of thinking dependent thinking, not because it depends on other thinkers but because it depends on them even in the first instance. Like a computer which must first be turned on, the students begins with a general assignment by the professor. The student’s first step (in my observation) is usually to ask for a more specific assignment. Something less ambiguous, less up to them. They hope to turn the project into a process. The more “cut out” the final assignment is, the better.

After the teacher has refined the assignment, the average student will seek even greater structure on their own by finding a popular project enunciated by one of the thinkers they recently studied. Most of the time the student simply “pulls a well-known intellectual paradigm off the shelf and applies it to some supposedly under-examined subject” (Wickman). Take Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism and exhume Edith Worley’s Custom of the Country—voila, you have an essay.

It is just this sort of algorithmic “crunching” that is most utilized by humanities students when writing an academic essay. It requires processing. You must scan the book, the language, the history for a pattern. Your brain works like a computer in this task with designated parameters: gathering options, categorizing, whittling down selections. And eventually you’ve done it. It’s been work, it has probably been enlightening. You may have come to believe the arguments you’ve made but in the same way I believed my parents as a child when they told me about Santa Claus: Believing was the natural result of dependency.

To help students find thinkers and projects for their essays, professors move through syllabi. One thinker after another, theory and counter theory. The assumption is that by addressing, even if trivially, many different philosophies, times, and paradigms, students will be forced to rationalize the disparity. By relying on such an array of thinkers they will emerge like a caterpillar from the brownage of its cocoon into a butterfly, discovering their own voice, thoughts, and observations.

This is not what happens–not usually, at least. Instead, the more common result is depicted by the character Smerdyakov in Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov. Smerdyakov is not a philosopher and not a particularly insightful thinker. Instead, he has learned how to effectively utilize another man’s philosophy. In this case he latches onto the atheism of the character Ivan.

Ivan’s philosophical beliefs are summarized by his brother as: God does not exist and if God does not exist, everything is permitted. Ivan expresses his own beliefs more elaborately, complexly, and quite beautifully. Yet his philosophic conclusions depress even himself. He is tortured by the division between his heart and his mind. While his mind doubts morality, his heart continues to compel moral action.

But Smerdyakov, much less invested in the weight of the matter, finds Ivan’s philosophy empowering. It becomes a way for him to justify his desire to kill his employer (who happens to be Ivan’s father—a despicable man universally disliked by all). The death of Ivan’s father sends Ivan into a fit of insanity as he realizes the result of his own moral philosophy.

This story, though with less drama and weaker prose, is repeated endlessly in the humanities. Instead of enduring the necessary internal turmoil of their philosophies, humanities majors shuffle through prefabricated paradigms that support their present desires and present needs, whatever they may be. And they arrive like both Ivan and Smerdyakov at the profound conclusion that anything is permitted. But the path they take is Smerdykov’s, not Ivan’s.

The brief and superficial exposure to the canon of thought gives students enough tools to rationalize their desires with none of the strings of a deeper commitment to the implications of ideas. I recently read a book by a professor who seemed to suffer from this same ailment of thought. He was a behaviorist who advocated admirably for the potential of creating a better world. His behaviorism was crucial to his claims because it allowed him to claim that all human “imperfection” is the result of poor environment. From this paradigm, crime, mental illness, and poverty could be solved simply by creating more nurturing environments.

The conclusion is meaningful and perhaps true, but the author seems entirely unaware of the profound and disturbing implications of his philosophy. His rejection of counter arguments was facile and his own beliefs seemed hollow, like the man had never struggled to come to terms with what he purported. In the process of advocating a better world he had done away with human agency. His rhetoric relied on convincing the reader that they could make a difference and that to institute his proposed policies would be a moral victory—good over bad. While he may indeed succeed in legislating policies that promote better environments, from his perspective I do not know how he can frame this as a moral victory. There is no victory in watching a rock fall.  

To motivate human action, we must at least believe that we are not simply reading a script but are ourselves writing the future (in short, that we have a moral agency that allows us to shape outcomes). It may be a marvelous script, but if the words are not our own, neither is the victory. And moral victory that is not the result of human agency, if it exists at all, must be reconceptualized as something similar to the beauty Colm Wilkinson might have experienced when he played Jean Valjean.  

To learn to argue without delving heart and soul into the paradoxes and inadequacies of ideas is the most dangerous thing a humanities major can learn. And yet I believe that is exactly what they are most likely to learn. We learn to poke holes in arguments that stand in our way and bolster the arguments that remain beneath our feet. But this is hardly a great feat; it is not even mildly impressive. This skill is displayed in abominable fashion in comment sections across the internet. After only a cursory exposure it becomes clear that among the least noble, enlightened, and helpful impulse is to poke a hole. Almost anyone can do that. The language of ideas is sloppy enough that it always leaves holes.

But making and patching holes is not the art of critical thinking. Critical thinking moves deeper, it is below the holes on the very canvas where it deals with ideas not where they are weak but where they are strong. It struggles to move past great thinkers who stand in the way, and does so with a kind of graceful reverence. Critical thinkers, who can stand against great movements and ideas are courageous because they know their own inadequacies.

It is here where we seem to make a classification error and wrongly identify the courageous voices of our age as the loud, the arrogant, the bold, the bombastic. But they so overestimate the rightness of their own position that their courage is always diminutive. They only know the courage of Goliath who enters the field already falsely assured of victory. It is only the meek, the generous, the unsettled thinkers who can truly know what courage is. They must enter the arena without bravado or the adulation of others, but only their own feeble, imperfect convictions.  

To think critically and courageously, in my estimation, is to think humbly and generously. It’s knowing that ideas can only be painted with a hemp brush and to see them for what they are requires something of us. And that something which must be given—our own blood, our own heart—is how the humanities major can still learn to think no longer dependently like Smerdyakov, but nobly and individually like Ivan. If a humanities major is still able to gain this ability it will not be because they have skimmed over the surface of ideas but because they dove deeply, and took their inquiries to their hearts—pretending, if necessary, that they are the very first to utter the questions.   

In my experience, the humanities major is not producing a series of great critical thinkers. Instead, the major produces yet another and another Smerdyakov. Because when everything is permissible, what is most compelling is what is most expedient.

I do not advise against becoming a humanities major because students will struggle to make a living after college. I think the ability to argue well gets anyone a lot of career mileage. I think humanities majors will be successful, perhaps too successful. My fear is that rather than coming to truth, they will only learn how to legislate it.

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11 thoughts on “Failure of the Humanities

  1. This was a very interesting read. As someone who studied the Humanities I, of course, had a few rebuttals come to mind…perhaps only reinforcing your overall point. Ultimately though, I was left with the question of how someone might appropriately develop a personal philosophy like Ivan. I would think that many philosophies have been and will be developed by first identifying what they are not. Meaning “making and patching holes” is only a part of a larger practice in narrowing in on a personal ideology. In this sense it is anything but expeditious or convenient.

    1. Thank you. I have a deep and abiding love for the humanities. And I actually hope I don’t discourage anyone from becoming a humanities major. . . Does that undercut my thesis? But in truth, I just want to encourage more sincere engagement, something I think is lacking.

      And well said about making and patching holes. Amen!

  2. I definitely agree about needing more engagement. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on how this is fostered in an academic setting.

    1. I didn’t spend much time on that subject, but I think it’s a good question. As far as this essay is concerned I allude to the idea of survey courses that are designed as an overview. Students learn different ideas and where those ideas rose and fell. Too often the unfortunate result is that students learn to dismiss great thinkers as if they were simply ignorant. I’ve heard several undergraduate and graduate students dismiss Plato as if he was a total moron. That’s a bit of a problem. And I think the core of the problem is hard to overcome. Even professional scholars, in order to make new claims, often misrepresent or over simplify competing ideas and ideology. It’s almost necessary. But I think there must also be taught a deep respect for past thinkers and ideas. I think this is best learned when we must try to grapple with ideas not where they are weak but where they are strong. Failing, is key here. No being able to totally “overcome.” In short, I think we teach how to “win the argument” and never how to lose.

  3. Thanks for this very excellent essay! My question is regarding our individual “Moral Compasses.” I can agree with most any argument if it fits within my moral compass.

  4. Perhaps I was the preceding “anonymous” respondent. Something within me seeks for proof and justification of “facts” that I know in my heart are true. Having a heart felt confirmation as well as practical experience and spiritual justification is one of my life’s most beautiful blessings. To have this personal, spiritual confirmation mocked and trashed is one of my life’s most painful experiences.

  5. The humanities are an excellent choice if you’re sure you will be an heiress or trophy husband. The skills taught in these courses are absolutely valuable, but I would never encourage anyone I cared about to take my path. For the merely above average and close-to-exceptional student, their future in the humanities will rely entirely on the value of their luck and connections. Employers and HR will not select resumes based on “critical thinking skills.” There are a few, like Josh, who make it work through high academic achievement and grit, but if you’re making career decisions please don’t think of his path as attainable for even a very good student. The humanities are a hobby, or for academic rockstars.

    1. Thanks Tasha! I don’t know that I’ve been successful (as of yet) but I do believe there are a fair number of successful English majors. However, as you say, it might not be because of that major. It’s likely due to other skills, connects, luck, or schooling. But if you’re willing to leverage other skills, then the humanities might have some value for increasing the mileage in your career. I’m curious to know what your up to?

      1. Hey Josh, I’m currently working in cyber security and doing pretty well. The first couple years after graduating were a struggle for me. I wish I was given better direction on what to do with my future, so that’s why I’m willing to spam people with advice about paying attention to the market over following your interests. There are many ways to make a soft degree work, but there are more ways to feel like you’ve been misled and cheated. I like being able to afford an apartment and food more than I like working a job that makes me happy, and to get a job that pays enough to live on requires skills that take time to develop and don’t come from studying humanities. At least, that’s the current state of the US economy. A plague or the singularity might change things, but for now I’d recommend STEM or being born rich to most students.

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