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Humanities Under Fire May 24, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Education, Philosophy.
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The Humanities—literature, the arts, history, and philosophy—are in deep trouble. As budget cuts percolate through our educational system, these disciplines will be the first to be down-sized because they seem to produce little tangible benefit.

And Stephen Mexal takes literature professor Stanley Fish to task for encouraging this trend.

Over the past year or so, Stanley Fish has occasionally devoted his New York Times blog to the notion that, as he put it recently, higher education is “distinguished by the absence” of a relationship between its activities and any “measurable effects in the world.” He has singled out the humanities for lacking what he called “instrumental value,” writing that “the value of the humanities cannot be validated by some measure external” to the peculiar obsessions of scholars. The humanities, Fish claimed, do not have an extrinsic utility—an instrumental value—and therefore cannot increase economic productivity, fashion an informed citizenry, sharpen moral perceptions, or reduce prejudice and discrimination. […]

This sentiment reached its logical apex last year in an article in The New York Times titled, “In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth.” […]

So when Fish claimed that the benefits of humanities research were limited to the researcher or the classroom, and that the public should therefore not have to “subsidize my moments of aesthetic wonderment,” he was drill-baby-drilling into the zeitgeist quite nicely.

As Mexal points out, the issue is not whether the arts, history, or literature (or philosophy) are useful—they obviously are. The issue is whether academic research into these areas is useful. What is the utility or academic analyses of art, philosophy, literature, or history?

Mexal’s answer is that the value of research in the humanities is neither immediate nor predictable. But he cites a variety of examples in which literary, historical, and philosophical works led directly to new developments in fields such as computer programming, national intelligence, and counter-intelligence.

What unites those stories is not that they exemplify times when humanities research has had instrumental value, but rather times when it has had unintended instrumental value. Those scholars did not intend, nor could they have anticipated, the applied value of their work. Yet that’s not to say the application of their work was the point of their work. After all, scholars weren’t studying Shakespeare with an eye toward establishing the CIA. Instead, research in the humanities, like research in all disciplines, is valuable precisely because we never know where new knowledge will lead us.

As these examples demonstrate, the relationship between humanities research and technological development was indirect—the result of creative synergy and analogical reasoning rather than a predictable pattern of application.

Americans have long appreciated the virtues of pure research. In an address to Congress advocating the establishment of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, in 1958, President Eisenhower said the new agency would be necessary in part for national security—the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik the year before—but also for more-abstract reasons. He indicated that NASA would be a boon because of the “compelling urge of man to explore the unknown”; because it would increase “national prestige,” which would then lead to additional “science and exploration”; and because it would create further “opportunities for scientific observation and experimentation which will add to our knowledge.”

The justification for space exploration was not just to beat the Russians into space but to produce less tangible goods.

NASA costs a tremendous amount of money. But ask any fourth grader, or any adult, for that matter, about the purpose of NASA, about what it has produced, and you will very likely get some mumblings about “the effect of gravity on tomato seeds,” or something about “satellite technology,” or maybe just that “Tang is delicious.” (Contrary to popular myth, NASA didn’t actually develop Tang, Teflon, or Velcro, three useful inventions for which it is commonly credited.) But in the post-cold-war era, the point of NASA is not to acquire some questionable data about floating tomato seeds; the point of NASA is to learn new things. We go into space because we learn stuff, not because we get stuff. NASA is our greatest monument to pure research, and it is foolish to suggest that its importance can be determined on the basis of particular utilitarian outcomes

We are in grave danger of succumbing to the idea that if something is not countable in dollars and cents it isn’t valuable. If we travel too far down this road, we will be less productive because we will be less creative.

And 21st Century development will indeed be outsourced to China.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com



1. Asur - May 25, 2010

The theoretical creates the applied; if the application is valuable, then the academic theorycraft that precedes it is necessarily equally so.

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