Reductionism and the Future of Humanities

This article was originally written for the Stanford Review's Fiat Lux blog

The humanities may have been in decline for several decades now, but recent events are signaling that a critical period lies ahead for these disciplines. The recent cancellation of programs in literature and foreign languages at the University of Albany was only the most recent example of colleges aggressively cutting their humanities departments to skeletal staff, often transferring the funds to more "practical” majors like business or IT administration.

Many answers have been trotted out to evaluate and presumably solve the problem. Stanley Fish, a prominent English professor at Florida International University, has argued that the humanities are essentially useless, but in a response to the Albany cancellation, wrote that "it is the job of presidents and chancellors to proclaim the value of liberal arts education loudly and often and at least try to make the powers that be understand what is being lost when traditions of culture and art that have been vital for hundreds and even thousands of years disappear from the academic scene.”

Taking a different approach, Joshua Landy, a Stanford Professor of French, argues that the humanities can open windows into ourselves. His advice? "Don't major in economics." The humanities have an intrinsic usefulness that can engage the young (and old) mind in new questions and new realities, and that passionately pursuing our own questions is much healthier than a rush to major in something practical.

An historical perspective of the situation is offered by Louis Menand, a distinguished professor of English at Harvard. Writing in his recent book The Marketplace of Ideas, he argues in one chapter that the development of humanities and its paradigms arose from the need to professionalize the disciplines - in effect, to require that new students must be acculturated into the vocation of the humanities academic (and by extension, giving universities a monopoly of new scholars). This in turn led to more esoterica, and a blurry definition of what the humanities do.

Unfortunately, these arguments and analyses do not bode well for the humanities. Arguments like the above and others that focus on the monetary value of the humanities are playing on the wrong battlefield. Attempting to put the humanities on utilitarian or economic terms is fundamentally flawed, since they are fundamentally anti-utilitarian and anti-economic. They do not subscribe to the notion of a dollar today, but rather the goal of understanding ourselves, our society, and our humanity for the benefit of our long-term development.

That kind of expansive nature has not been particularly well-received in a reductionist world, where elections are about the latest polls and health is about eating a certain daily value of Omega-3 acids. The humanities are about interpreting and synthesizing on a more holistic level without the scientism and reductionism that accompanies these problems. Elections are about policies, philosophy, ethics and culture. Health is about well-being, a concept that is variably defined by the individual patient. Much as a telescope gives astronomers a window to the stars, humanities are an instrument into our core selves. Thus, I would argue that the humanities offers a response to the chaotic world that has changed so much in the past two decades, a time when we have learned gigabytes of data about humans and their behaviors and yet are no more educated on the underlying nature of the human existence.

This is the offense I want the humanities to begin. No one hears about the need to "defend” medical schools or social science departments from criticism. Yet, we have no cure for cancer (despite spending vast sums of money on the war on cancer) and our economy is in shambles (despite the mathematical theories behind weapons of mass financial destruction). These are not just flaws, but complete failures. It is time for the humanities to point this out.

It is difficult in my mind to believe that the humanities really need to be defended. When Albany eliminated most of their foreign language departments, they essentially said that the world around America does not matter. How ironic for an institution whose motto is "The World Within Reach.” We live in a globalized world with cultures merging, evolving and clashing like never before. And now, now, the humanities have no intrinsic value?

It is well past time for the humanities to fight back. With budgets tighter than anytime in recent memory, the battle that takes place today could well define the educational experience for a generation of students. The humanities will never win a budget war on strict dollar value against medicine or business, not in the current political morass. What it can do instead is offer a robust alternative to our culture's reductionism by continuing to explore novel approaches to understanding the human condition at a holistic level. That is worthy of funding, and worthy of any institution that calls itself an university.


Have a comment? Feel free to leave a reply using Discourse. Please try to keep comments civil, or they may have to be edited. ~Danny