Crystal Clear

You can find a new article extolling the value of the humanities just about every day of the week.  Scroll down on this very site, stranger, and you’ll find a pile of links to such articles, many of which I’ve discussed during the year (!) that I’ve maintained this blog.

The preponderance of such articles is no mystery.  There are few topics on which a historian of sixteenth-century Tunisian goat herders and a student of Tennysonian spondees can professionally converse, but both can grouse about how their pursuits are disparaged.  And when you aggregate all the Tunisian ladies and Tennysonian fellows they form a real market, so there is an incentive to fill academic sites with occasional defenses of the category that unites them: the humanities.

Does there exist a study of the defense-of-the-humanities as a genre?  It’s not hard to picture what such a study might turn up.  Like all genres, the one has a recipe: start with signs of impending doom, add a recent report, stir in terms like “life of the mind,” then stew.  Of course, variations exist – some insist that the humanities impart useful skills; others argue for an inherent value that is not reducible to utilitarian terms – but among even these writers there  is seldom an explosive innovation in how one goes about writing such a defense.

That said, the genre is definitely full of interesting rhetorical lessons and it can be a fine vehicle for other propositions.  This is the case in Geoffrey Galt Harpham’s recent paper in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, which shows some real hustle.  In this post, I’ll consider how Harpham tees up the problem of valuing the humanities nicely but also fails to follow through.  I don’t have a strong judgment about this effort, but I expect a close look at it will reveal a little about how the present economic crisis is beginning to affect how writers go about defending the humanities as a field of endeavor.

Harpham begins by citing a set of belligerent questions that he supposes are being asked by shabby administrators who dispute the “value” of the humanities:

Why should society support the humanities when so many people are suffering from the effects of the economic crisis? What claim do the humanities, or scholarship generally, have on increasingly limited resources? Shouldn’t such pursuits be considered luxuries at a time when we should be focusing on essentials?

Note that the imagined antagonist begins with a pivotal opposition – luxuries versus essentials – and it is only as a result of this binary that the humanities seems dispensable.

Also note that Harpham discusses the humanities as if it didn’t already exist, like a proposed hospital addition.  Simply by using “why should” instead of “why is,” this paper announces that it will not explain the reasons why millions of reasonable people have already seen fit to support the humanities to the point that it is already embedded in our traditions.  Instead, the paper will explain why people ought to support humanistic learning right now, as if it had suddenly occurred to them to do so.

So, at least one potentially valuable avenue of argumentation has been closed off.  This move is not new.  One major feature of the defense-of-humanities genre is that it tends to take the form of either a policy argument or a historical explanation.  It is seldom the case that both kinds of propositions travel a single line of reasoning.  Is this a problem?  What motivated Harpham to diminish the story of how the humanities have contributed to the life of the nation even during times darker than our own?

Well, let’s see how the setup jives with Harpham’s central claim:

Our most immediate concerns cannot be our only concerns. While we are struggling through the morass of the present, we must retain both our memory, which sustains us, and our imagination, which must light the way forward …

Memory and imagination place us in the general domain of the humanities. And that leads to my main argument: The humanities are, if not the top priority right now, at least one of the areas that must be recognized as crucial, and supported accordingly. The present crisis does not eclipse the humanities but rather reveals the need for the skills, dispositions, and resources that the humanities, and only the humanities, cultivate.

See that?

After characterizing the debate as a policy question rather than a historical one, Harpham is free to associate the humanities not only with the fusty old tomes with which it is commonly associated (“memory”) but also with predictions of the future (“the imagination”).

Meanwhile, he has reformulated the choice before us.  Instead of asking about luxuries versus essentials, the argument structures itself around different categories – (1) that which is “immediate” “right now” “present,” and (2) that which helps to “cultivate skills” and “light the way forward.”  Because he has sidestepped the history of the humanities a little, Harpham has ultimately been able to promulgate a philosophy of history, one in which a society without humanistic learning is stuck in the present (a static situation) while a society with the humanities is capable of heading towards the future (a teleological situation).  To embrace the humanities is to exist in forward-directed time capable of fruitful growth; that’s why it’s “cultivated.”

It’s a neat trick.  Harpham develops it by getting deeper into what he takes to be the source of our present financial travails.

What was missing, some analysts have concluded, was a deeper understanding of the relationship between value and confidence. It was presumed that the value of, say, houses was always going to rise. Beneath that assumption was another, that the value had a certain solidity, like the house itself. However, as Paul S. Willen, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, recently noted, “The price of an asset, like a house or a stock, reflects not only your beliefs about the future, but you’re also betting on other people’s beliefs.” He went on, “It’s these hierarchies of beliefs – these behavioral factors – that are so hard to model.”

The key factor, then, escapes abstract models because it is human and social, not mathematical – a vast imaginative construction composed of hopes, fears, illusions, calculations, judgments. Unlike the house, the imaginative construction that determines the house’s value can be destroyed by a pinprick – hence the term bubble.

Harpham uses the term “projective retrospection” to describe the skills that humanists develop to assess forward-directed thought – hopes, fears, illusions, calculations and judgments – proposing that failures of projective reasoning are remediable by application of humanistic thought.  Economists failed to understand what “confidence” really is, and that’s something we can help them out with.  This is a much bolder claim than the old shibboleth that the humanities are good because they impart “critical thinking,” a term that only a scholar can love.

Alas, right after proposing that humanistic thought could be a crystal ball that shows the way forward, Harpham drops it.  Instead of giving precise examples of the successful use of projective retrospection, he veers off course to explain how consumer confidence operates a lot like fiction, which is something that humanists can presumably help the public understand.

Sure, fine, okay.  But this move buries the real achievement of this essay.  Because he has pinned the value of his model of the humanities to an ability to amend errors in how leaders conceptualize human confidence, Harpham desperately needs to give a example of the improved process that he proposes, to turn projective retrospection from sorcery into science.  Without doing so, the proposition seems just like ordinary retrospection and Harpham’s glass goes cloudy, which is a pity for such a promising paper.

Anyway, even if we credit Harpham’s idea, why should we even want to enable more effective speculation?  Is that the only way to justify what we do?

For now, just in case, I’ll limit my impressive powers of imaginative projection to a hunch that another stirring new essay on the enduring value of the humanities has already appeared somewhere in the time it took me to assess this one.

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Filed under Found Phrases, Language, Teaching

3 responses to “Crystal Clear

  1. Pingback: Quid plura? | "I need a phone call, I need a raincoat..."

  2. Natalia

    There is of course a lengthy tradition of defenses of poetry, where “poetry” usually means something vaguely equivalent to the humanities, if not necessarily in its modern professionalized incarnation. Chris Nealon has given a brief study of them in “The Poetic Case,” CI 33.4 (2007).

  3. ducksanddrakes

    And there’s plenty of MLA talks that engage the same defensive theme, of course. (Did you see the Marjorie Perloff / Walter Ben Michaels panel in San Francisco, by the way?) I find it so mysterious: it’s such a supple genre, yet its writers argue most passionately in just the venues where their perspectives will not reach the antagonists that they seek to convince. I’m not even sure if there’s a difference between the genre of the defense of the humanities and the genre of the failed defense of the humanities.

    My own view is that we make a stupid tactical error when we accept the proposition that the value of humanistic thought is not obvious, but must be explained. This way, we are always playing defense, which is not a stance that often leads to success, and may only prolong defeat. For once, we ought to put the onus on the naysayers to prove that humanistic thinking DOESN’T have value, and let them come up with a cogent defense of that position. Such an approach would more fittingly demonstrate the faith in our position that we profess, and it would put us in a position to respond to an argument that is not well-crafted at all.

    Thanks for the tip, Natalia!

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