What Makes the Humanities “Useful”?

Jim Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, took to the pages of the Los Angeles Times yesterday to argue that there’s nothing “useless” about a major in History. In fact, he contended, it has tremendous economic utility:

Jim Grossman
James Grossman – American Historical Association

The utility of disciplines that prepare critical thinkers escapes personnel offices, pundits and politicians (some of whom perhaps would prefer that colleges graduate more followers and fewer leaders). But it shouldn’t. Labor markets in the United States and other countries are unstable and unpredictable. In this environment — especially given the expectation of career changes — the most useful degrees are those that can open multiple doors, and those that prepare one to learn rather than do some specific thing….

Employers interested in recruiting future managers should understand (and many do) that historical thinking prepares one for leadership because history is about change — envisioning it, planning for it, making it last. In an election season we are reminded regularly that success often goes to whoever can articulate the most compelling narrative. History majors learn to do that.

They’re familiar arguments; I’ve often made them myself: not just with more prospective students and parents than I could count, but with you all last month. (See also the Careers page I’ve curated at our department blog.)

But I can only make the “useful degree” arguments halfheartedly, uneasily.

After all, didn’t I just write a post complaining that evangelical college students were unduly concerned with factors like employability and salary when choosing their major? And didn’t I follow that post with another warning Christian colleges to resist the “corporatization” of higher education?

If I’m right that “[craving] a security defined in terms of material affluence, physical comfort, and economic stability” points to deep problems with evangelicalism, and if I’m right that “no Christian college ought primarily to serve the needs of a market economy,” then how enthusiastically should I make a case like Grossman’s?

Miguel de Unamuno in 1925
Burnett took inspiration from a line from the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno: “Man is perishable. That may be. But let us perish resisting, and, if Nonexistence is what awaits us, let us not act in a way that would make our fate seem just” — Wikimedia

In my heart of hearts, I tend to agree with L.D. Burnett, whose weekend post at the U.S. Intellectual History blog concluded:

Let us resist perishing.  But if we must perish, let us perish resisting. That’s not an ethos they teach in Intro to Econ, not even at Stanford – perhaps especially not there, fons et origo of Silicon Valley. Economic arguments for the value of a humanistic education will not save the humanities, and we should stop making them. The value of what we study, of what we teach and what we learn, is that such learning can help keep the human spirit alive. That may be the surest ground upon which we can stand. If that ground at the very heart of the university is lost, whatever still remains will hardly be worth keeping, whether or not we ourselves are by some miracle still standing.

Yes, and amen: “The value of what we study, of what we teach and what we learn, is that such learning can help keep the human spirit alive.” This, not job training or leadership preparation, is the highest use of history.

(That said, I’m glad that Burnett included the word “help” in that claim. History and the other humanities cannot accomplish their goals apart from the arts and sciences. And as a Christian humanist, I don’t think that any human activity can, by itself, fully sustain the spirit of creatures made for Eternity, not Nonexistence. But by the same token, I’m convinced that our Creator wants humans to ask hard questions of him, and to pursue historical and other inquiry that leads to uncomfortable truths about his Church, which down through the centuries has done its fair share of crushing the human spirit.)

Now, I’m not about to stop arguing for the economic utility of studying history. As Tim Lacy, one of Burnett’s co-bloggers, commented, “utilitarian, practical, and business-like defenses” remain “necessary in the current and historical context of higher education in the United States.” Like Lacy, I don’t think we can “allow our idealism to cloud our own practical thinking, even while those ideals propel us to smarter and broader defenses of the life of the mind.”

But as I seek both to “resist perishing” and “perish resisting,” I’ll try to take Burnett’s response to heart:

…these kinds of apologetics are best engaged in by way of rejoinder, as a counter to the canard that majoring in a humanistic field of study is going to lead to a terrible financial future. The problem is that this apologetic strategy too easily moves from rhetorical stance to rationale — instead of standing on humanistic grounds and making an economic argument, we surrender the humanistic argument (and territory) entirely and try to fight the battle on economic / utilitarian turf. That’s a risky gambit.

Fellow historians and other humanists: Do you think we should argue for the economic utility of our disciplines?


5 thoughts on “What Makes the Humanities “Useful”?

  1. I appreciate your split-the-difference approach. And I do agree with you that the liberal arts and humanities cannot alone sustain the spirit. More is needed, from somewhere. That somewhere for me is Christianity with an edge (i.e. my own Catholic Democratic Socialist Critical Theory–a mouthful, I know). – TL

  2. I’m spending my summer “break” reworking how I teach my history classes (world history, in particular). I want my students to understand the value the humanities bring to all aspects of life.

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