Stop defending the humanities

Traditional defences of the discipline are based on unsound reasoning, writes James Nikopoulos

February 25, 2017
Academics in Africa

We need to stop “defending” the humanities. Because when we do, too often we succumb to the same small-mindedness that we claim these disciplines combat. 

Apologists for the study of philosophy, history, literature and art usually claim that the humanities train us to be: creative, logical and nimble thinkers (this is the pragmatic, skill-set thesis). The humanities do this, in part, by imparting the kind of knowledge about culture that makes us more empathetic and, thus, ethically minded global citizens (the altruistic, good human being thesis).

These arguments rely on unsound reasoning and are unsubstantiated by any acknowledgement of contradictory examples. In other words, they fail to employ the very same wisdom that literature, philosophy and history supposedly provide when they teach us rhetoric, logic and our pasts. 

There is no proof that only the humanities do what they claim to do.

Anyone with even a vague idea of physics must understand how imaginative one must be to succeed in that field. Anyone who has ever attempted to engineer a solution to a problem will recognise the role of creative thought in the technical sciences. And anybody with access to the internet can scan through the ever-lengthening list of erudite men and women with backgrounds in the humanities who were unethical and/or atrocious (Joseph Goebbels wrote his PhD thesis on a Romantic playwright). 

The discussions we are having about the limited resources hampering higher education are leading us to forget something fundamental: a discipline doesn’t create anything – not knowledge, not skills. It merely provides a means through which to acquire knowledge and skills. And our multitude of minds don’t all gravitate to the same processes of enquiry.

In my own life, I have come to realise how beautiful and insightful are mathematics, chemistry, physics. But no matter how hard I try, I cannot persuade myself to care enough to do more than admire from a distance. My brain just does not get excited about numbers like it does about stories. Which is partly why I was never a disciplined or insightful thinker in my physics and maths classes, even if I find the theories underlying their day-to-day work riveting.

If I had been more practical and had studied something like computer science, for example, I am sure that I would have figured things out. But the world would only have gotten one more mediocre programmer (whereas I get to be a bit less mediocre in my present career).

We do need to train students in STEM, just like we need to train them in language use and history. Not just because a pluralistic society demands a plurality of skill sets, but because the skill sets that a society brandishes are only as useful as they are relevant to the passions of their populace. This is not just about providing young people with paths to personal fulfilment (although all disciplines can do this). It is about excluding portions of the population from the pool of talent.

In the same way that nations decimate the quantity of human capital available by excluding women and minorities, so does a country destroy its potential for innovation when it legislates that only certain ways of thinking are worth pursuing.

This is what disciplines, all disciplines, provide us with: paradigms for how to begin thinking deeply about the world. Therefore, a defence of one discipline should be a defence of all disciplines. I was blessed to find a field of study that allowed me to tap into my own personal reserves. God help us when we start mandating an even more limited set of pre-packaged ways to investigate the world.

James Nikopoulos is assistant professor in the department of languages, linguistics and literature at Nazarbayev University, Kazakhstan.

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Reader's comments (2)

A very good point. I do think 'the humanities' possess the ability to perhaps be more self-conscious than other disciplines (not the people *within* those disciplines, but according to the disciplines themselves; I am thinking from a Lukácsian perspective). It is the purview of my field - critical theory - for instance, to critique not just what it sees (and science would be on that list), but also itself, and its role in society. Because of what I am tasked to read, I cannot help but spend most of my time self-doubting. Not healthy, no, but important in a certain sense. To get to the point: it is dangerous to defend 'the humanities' by simply ascribing to it a role within a society which it is inherently at odds with. Exploited by, certainly, but that exploitation should not be a point of defence. To say that the study of literature possesses greater skills in business, for instance, is utterly banal; that's not what the study of literature is for. I say this not in opposition to this article - which I wholeheartedly agree with - but as a way of extending its point.
But historians do create "new knowledge" by conducting advanced research and passing this on to their students. They contribute to the debate with the people of the past, of the present and of the future. It has never been a "means" in the sense used by Mr Nikopoulos. He needs to develop his understanding of the humanities in greater depth.


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