An apologia for the humanities…

A friend asked me recently, quite off the cuff, to justify the importance of history, and the humanities in general. I should not have been surprised, given that this was Phd philosophy student. It is something that I feel strongly about, yet had never attempted to formally justify the study of the humanities. In the conversation that followed, I remember being quite unimpressive.

At the University of Sussex, the crown of the campus is the new Jubilee Building, which houses the business school.  It’s no coincidence, of course. The architectural dichotomy continues in that all of the humanities are stuck away in the buildings that date back to the ’60s. It is not the age of the buildings that bothers me, it is the implicit marginalization of certain subjects even at the University; the space in public life where ideas are developed in equality. The ‘University’ maintains its importance to society and culture because it is a space that is separate from what we mean when we say “the real world.” It’s a national park for ideas and intellectual endeavor.

But I am getting ahead of myself. The humanities have intrinsic value, and I place this in direct contrast to the extrinsic value of money and the market. The study of humanity is of universal interest and at some level, we all are humanists in some way; being a humanists means as little as really enjoying a daytime soap. In one sense, this reduces the market value of the humanities because, as humans we are all humanists. There is too much supply, you could say. I think this view, and the ‘market’ view  artificially reduces the true demand  for humanities. We have trouble seeing past the direct application and market value of the humanities. There true values lies in the appreciation and  internalization of the lessons and views gained by the humanities.

Deep down, the humanities show the plurality of the human experience. In other words, “its complicated.” It is this complication which contains the value and the richness of the humanities. This bares a practical value in that it resists classifying and dismissing others as the ‘crowd’ or ‘women 21-30’ etc. The more we value ourselves and others as individuals, we understand the danger of the ‘generalization’ or what we might term the ‘totality’. A practical example of totality would be the claims of the international socialism of Soviet Russia. I mean to say that deep down, every generalization about humanity contains some falsehood, and this has shown to eventually have disastrous effects.

I guess you call that the political/philosophical defense of humanities. I would also like to try a historical and social justification.

It is a truism to say “those who do not learn about the mistakes of the past are bound to repeat them”. This is largely true, but perhaps not in the literal sense. I distinctly remember being told several years ago during the initial invasion of Iraq that it would not turn into a quagmire like Vietnam because there were no jungles in Iraq, and no Soviet Union to resupply the bad guys.

For example, a common lesson drawn from the appeasement of Hitler in the ’30s was that “appeasement only makes the aggressor more aggressive”.  Applied to the geopolitical specter of the Soviet Union, the result was ‘containment’, MAD, and the Cold War. But there are huge consequences; Vietnam was fought entirely because of the logic of ‘containment’.

If history teaches anything, it is that of the unyielding truth of the law of unintended consequences. The study of history teaches perspective, humility, and an awareness of the limits of power, and insights into human psychology. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan should have been seen as obvious quagmires from the start, but just a general public awareness of the phrase “wars start when you will, but no one knows when they will end” probably would have been enough to keep us from those disasters.

Society is increasingly rationalized to a profit-maximazation and GDP growth goals and conceptions. As the logic continues to its logical conclusion, every thing that cannot contribute to profit will be steadily eliminated. Money is really the only relationship left. I think that the alienation of the vast majority of people (this is manifested in a million ways; escapism through intoxicants, violence and militarism, mindless television, serial killers, etc etc) is the obvious result. The humanities represent a way out and past this. It puts the focus not on money and profit, but on actual people and their lives. I think this is something we can all buy into.


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