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In (Policy) Defense of the Humanities

February 22, 2009, 5:28 pm

by Jarrod Hayes

A month ago, Stanley Fish wrote in his New York Times blog about the rise of the corporate university and the dark future for the Humanities. Last week, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the legislators in the State of Georgia object to funding faculty research ‘deemed unnecessary.’ This trend is disturbing and damaging, not only to the finest university system in the world, but also to the ability of universities to contribute to society in a meaningful way.

The Humanities and the varieties of research areas that arise out of these traditions are valuable in their own right, utilitarian concerns aside. Would we be better off today without the work of philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant or Bertrand Russell? This point is not my central concern here however. What Fish laments, and the comments of the Georgia legislators imply, is that there exists a sense that the humanities—philosophy, history, literature—do not serve a utilitarian role, that they are ‘unnecessary.’ This belief could not be further from the truth, and I make this claim, not as a scholar of the humanities, but as a scholar of international relations—a social scientist.

The claim that the Humanities do not serve a utilitarian or policy purpose is rooted in the belief that human societies can be managed without regard for the very things that make them human. Societies, and the people within them, are influenced and shaped by their individual and collective pasts and the ideas generated within and without society cemented in poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction. Utilitarian efforts to understand and explain policy, the mechanisms of governance, and the interactions of societies cannot be undertaken independently of these humanistic elements. We in the social sciences—particularly in the study of International Relations, that most policy-oriented of the social sciences—rely on the work of the Humanities every day.

An example is in order. Iran, having just launched a satellite, is forefront in the news today. I am certain the Georgia legislators would find necessary research in International Relations focused on how the United States, and the international system, should deal with Iran. But, can we answer this question without understanding Iran’s history and how that history is propagated in society through texts, art, and songs? This history, as well as the arts and literature that perpetuate and propagate it throughout society, shapes how Iranians see themselves and how they see the outside world. These views are fundamental to understanding why Iran acts as it does and what effect—constructive and destructive—various policies may have on Iran’s future choices and behavior.

The Humanities play a critical role in a wide variety of disciplines. Today, we struggle to grasp how to deal with the economic crisis. In our effort to find a solution we turn to history: the Great Depression and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s policy response in the form of the New Deal. Without historians to study that era and its lessons, we would have precious few intellectual resources available to bring to bear on our current crisis. Even in the natural sciences—physics, chemistry, biology, and astronomy—so seemingly divorced from the humanities have learned valuable lessons about the process of scientific investigation and discovery from the work of historians like Thomas Kuhn. Engineering, a field defined by its utilitarian purpose, depends at least in part on the imaginings of science fiction literature for ideas about what might be possible, and how society might make use of those possibilities.

The United States has the finest university system in the world. It is the finest because scholars study the entirety of the human experience and existence. For-profit institutions of higher learning—Fish cites the University of Phoenix—are not true universities but trade schools in a new guise. There is nothing wrong with that; we need trade schools as much today as we ever did as technology progresses at a lightning pace. However, we should not confuse the contributions to society of universities and trade schools. Universities generate understandings and explanations of where we have been, where we are, and where we might go. The Humanities are integral to that process, and we need to defend them and their funding both for their own value and for what they contribute to more utilitarian pursuits.

Jarrod Hayes is a PH.D. Candidate and a Bannerman Fellow in the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California. You can respond to Jarrod in the comments section, or at his email address: JarrodDOTHayesATuscDOTedu.

This is the first of what I hope will be many guest posts at Tenured Radical. If you have a piece you would like to submit, please send it to the gmail account listed above for consideration.

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