How Humanities Can Help Fix the World

Roundup
tags: education, humanities



John McCumber is a professor of Germanic languages at the University of California at Los Angeles and the author, most recently, of The Philosophy Scare: The Politics of Reason in the Early Cold War (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

As academe’s hoped-for recovery from the 2008 financial crisis recedes before it like the shimmer of water on a hot roadway, the problems of its humanities component are up close and all too real. There is no doubt that the United States is now producing an unprecedented number of B.A.s who know little or nothing about humanistic thought — and a growing number of humanities Ph.D.s who cannot find jobs.

As Alexander I. Jacobs noted last year in a Chronicle essay, defenses of the humanities have tended to take two paths. One, the more traditional, points out that life is not simply a matter of careers, and that the humanities address the higher concerns that make it worth living: A person who knows some Shakespeare and Plato, or who has some acquaintance with Bach and Canaletto, will live a happier and more interesting life than someone who does not.

The other response cites the growing evidence that the skills taught in humanities courses — clear and critical thinking, knowledge of different cultures, and so on — are in fact very useful for careers, especially at the higher levels of business and politics. Many people, of course, accept both these arguments, and rightly so. People with humanistic training do tend to succeed both at careers and life.

The arguments may indeed be persuasive, but as Jacobs pointed out, they aren’t working. In a society that has largely dismantled its already feeble safety nets, most people — even many who were once considered well off — are scrambling just to make it through the month, or the next couple of months; they can’t worry about interesting lives or high levels of future achievement. The defenses fail, in short, because it is society itself, not the individuals who live in it, that needs fixing.

So in order to survive, the humanities have to fix the world. Can they? Not on their own, of course. But a recent incident at the University of California at Los Angeles, where I teach, suggests that they can help — and in a crucially important way. ...




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