Friday, April 15, 2011

Humanist, Heal Thyself!

Around the world, humanities programs are under attack. With money in short supply governments are cutting back wherever they can.

Governments that fund universities have discovered that it's easy to cut academic humanities programs. Not only do they seem to lack social utility, but no real constituency is rushing to their defense.

Actually, it's worse than that. As Nicholas Dawes explains in a long and intricate essay, an awful lot of people seriously dislike academic humanists. Many citizens seem to harbor an outright rancor for people who teach poetry and philosophy. It may be hard to imagine how people who study Chaucer and Seneca could elicit such hostility, but they do.

This might suggest that humanists need to do better PR. At the very least, the public view of the humanities “demanded a response from the professors.” Link here.

Besieged humanists felt the need to defend themselves. As is their wont, they did so by becoming defensive.

Take the books Dawes reviews, one by philosopher Martha Nussbaum, the other by English professor Louis Menand.

Much of what they both have to say is old and stale. What they do not say is most telling: neither of them suggests that the reputation of the humanities might have something to do with the way humanists have been presenting and promoting their discipline.

After all, humanists have long since abandoned the idea of teaching the humanities. They are more involved in defending themselves than in defending their disciplines.

For the past four decades humanists have made it their business to wring the life out the great works of art, literature, and philosophy exposing them to the systematic abuse of critical theory, deconstruction, political radicalism, and identity politics.

Humanists no longer teach the humanities. Sometimes they feel that they are community organizers. Sometimes that want to be doing politics. Sometimes they feel that they are performing therapy. Most  times they indoctrinate their students in their values, their beliefs, and their own putative wisdom.

While Menand feels that humanists revel in the impractical, Nussbaum pretends that a humanities education provides excellent preparation for the workplace. In her mind the humanities foster innovation and creativity. And she insists that being obsessed with the nebulous category of "otherness" will fill students with sympathy.She believes that these will make students into desirable employees.

Of course, the job market has another idea. It has now discovered that students who major in the humanities come away with a bad attitude, with a poor work ethic, and with self-indulgent habits.

By all accounts business today prefers engineering students to classicists. If memory serves, ‘twas not always thus.

Students who study with an eminent philosopher like Martha Nussbaum will enter the business world brimming over with “sympathy,” --that is Nussbaum’s hobby horse-- ready to temper the narcissism that she feels is running rampant there.

Is this going to make you a great team player? When you are out competing for the next contract, should you really feel sympathy for your opponents?

As Dawes seems to suggest, businesses do not want to hire young people who have learned to criticize everything, who are skeptical about everything, and who are more worried about saving the planet than they about making money for the company.

You not get a job in order to save your soul, and you are never going to do a good job if your goal is to use the job to save your soul.

When it comes to any competitive environment, sympathy will render you dysfunctional. Feeling bad for others does not generate profits and without profits you will not have the resources to help out those who are the objects of your sympathy… by offering them jobs.

Worse yet, Nussbaum seems to think that the humanities should be offering therapy. In her mind, teaching students to be more sympathetic to others will make them less narcissistic and morally obtuse.

Obviously, this reference comes to us from social science, not the humanities.

Unfortunately, Nussbaum’s worry about sympathy causes her to distort and truncate ethics. Had she been teaching the values of fair play, of rule following, of sportsmanship, and of hard work… her students would probably have better job prospects.

As it happens, ethics is properly the domain of the humanities. When you limit yourself to Plato, Rousseau, Winnicott and John Dewey, you are ignoring the most important ethicists.

And you ignore the free market. We know that these leftist intellectuals have no real use for the marketplace, even for the marketplace of ideas. And they have failed to recognize that the market is real.

Now they are learning the hard way that you cannot just wish away reality. You might want to ignore it, but it knows where you live.


David Foster said...

"Unfortunately, Nussbaum’s worry about sympathy causes her to distort and truncate ethics"'s a passage from G K Chesterton, which I quoted over at Dr Helen's the other day:
The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad.

--Orthodoxy, 1908

David Foster said...

Michael Hammer, a renowned management consultant and a good thinker, has argued for the role of the humanities in the education of businesspeople...BUT he is talking about real, rigorous humanities programs, not the mushy "social studies" and "victim studies" programs that are too common today...AND he wants the student to also study a hard science or engineering discipline. Link.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks, David, for the great quote and the link to an excellent post. I am amazed that your post dates to 2004. I would call that being well ahead of the curve.

David Foster said...

Note that the date on Mike Hammer's book in 1996!

Anonymous said...

What's your problem? Didn't you get into a prestigious humanities program, so now you have to pretend to be an overpaid life coach? And why do I suspect you don't even have any degree at all.