DO THE HUMANITIES REALLY HUMANIZE? DOES IT MATTER IF THEY DO OR DON’T? PART II

Pondering the question that titles this blog, my mind turned to several writers who have tackled the topic of the value of the humanities over the years.  This entry will focus primarily on two of them.

In 1949, more than half a century before Stanley Fish suggested that the purview of the humanities was not to save us[1], William Hardy Alexander writing for the collection of essays, The Humanities for Our Time[2], took to task several of the justifications usually proffered for the study of the humanities. Specifically commenting on the worth of classics (Latin and Greek), Alexander’s arguments, applicable to the humanities in general, offer his principal reason for their study:

And for fear it should be missed by you because of what may seem the sheer egregiousness of its folly, let me say here and now that the supreme survival value  inherent in classical studies…is that it is they that give us a coign of vantage from which to view with clear eye the mores and the alleged ideals of our current civilization. You cannot soundly or accurately appraise a culture within which you yourself are standing and outside of which you have no power to step…We need  to be reminded, not that we are wonderful, since that is the thing uniquely above all others that humanity is disposed to assume about itself anyway, but that we are  a great deal less wonderful than we supposed, a great deal more arrogant, vain, more stubborn, more stupid, than it is really wise or even decent to be.  For our own survival as a civilization we need a constant still, small voice against foolish pride (137-39).

Hardy’s justification for the study of humanities is as insightful as it is brazen: we need the humanities to tell us what absolute asses we are because no age has ever understood its own hubris.  It’s a thought-provoking argument to make and among the more compelling I’ve read but it does suggest that the study of the humanities should make us at least more self aware.

In contrast to Alexander, Stanley Fish in his 2008 New York Times Opinionator piece “Will the Humanities Save Us?” made clear his view on this blog’s title question by asking, “Do the humanities ennoble? And for that matter, is it the business of the humanities, or of any other area of academic study, to save us?” Fish continues:

It’s a pretty idea, but there is no evidence to support it and a lot of evidence against it… Teachers and students of literature and philosophy don’t learn how to be good and wise; they learn how to analyze literary effects and to distinguish between different accounts of the foundations of knowledge…

And that, I believe, is how it should be. Teachers of literature and philosophy are competent in a subject, not in a ministry. It is not the business of the humanities to  save us, no more than it is their business to bring revenue to a state or a university.

His argument is so convincing that I should probably delete both of these blog posts because ultimately I agree with Fish, or at least I do partially.  I love the force of the question that asks is it the job of the humanities to save us?  I most certainly agree that it is not their job in so far as analyses and learning discernment of logic and illogic are indeed modes of intellectual inquiry.  On the other hand, why do we teach the humanities if we don’t hope that they will give us insight into our past mistakes and current lives?  Why would we teach science for that matter if we didn’t think creating future scientists would advance our society?  Ah, true enough, advancing a society isn’t at all the same as saving a society so I understand Fish’s objection; still, we all realize that the humanities alone aren’t the only disciplines asked to save us.

It’s true:  no one asks per se, “Do the sciences humanize us?” but the expectation that science can save us—at least in a physical way– is implicit in the money we continue to put at its disposal.  But I have strayed from the topic at hand: do the humanities humanize?  Fish asks if they should, and Alexander says that do in the sense that they shore up our inhumanity and arrogance.  Neither answer is very satisfying each being given short shrift due to space constraints and attention spans; both Alexander and Fish  have more to say on the topic as do so many others. Still, the topic will rest here for the moment while perhaps Alexander and Fish tease more thoughts from us and lead us towards an answer to whether or not the humanities should or do humanize. 

Works Cited

Alexander, William Hardy. “Title of Alexander’s essay forthcoming.” Lectures in the Humanities :The Humanities for our Time: University of Kansas Press, 1949. (137-39). Print.

Fish, Stanley. “Will the Humanities Save Us?” New York Times 6 Jan. 2008. Web. 9 Jan. 2014. [http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/01/06/will-the-humanities-save-us/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0]


[1] Stanley Fish. “Will the Humanities Save Us?” New York Times 6 Jan. 2008. Web. 9 Jan. 2014. [http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/01/06/will-the-humanities-save-us/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0]

[2] William Hardy Alexander. “Title of Alexander’s essay forthcoming.” Lectures in the Humanities :The Humanities for our Time: University of Kansas Press, 1949. (Pages forthcoming). Print.

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