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Beyond Profit: The Value of the Humanities

(Jack Devlin/Yale University)

“When privileging science and math in the curriculum at the expense of the humanities, education sacrifices what is most essential: the important civic function of the humanities. As a result, we produce ‘a nation of employees, not citizens.'”

Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from the author’s 2023 book Philosophical Sojourns in Aesthetics, Existence, and Education, which was released with Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 

In April of 2021, writing in the Washington Post, philosopher Cornel West and writer Jeremy Tate criticized the administrative decision to dissolve the classics department at Howard University, the only historically black college or university at the time with a classics department. Despite protests and efforts to save the department, in 2022, it was eliminated. It must be noted that as grim as this decision appears, limited instruction in classics continues within the university on an ad hoc basis.  

We encounter an even more alarming situation when turning our attention to the recent activity at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Potsdam, where administrators are in the process of eliminating programs in the humanities. In October of 2023, the university announced that over the next three to four academic years, nine academic programs would be phased out. Of the nine, seven are courses and majors from the liberal arts, and they include undergraduate degrees in such fields as philosophy, art history, and theatre.   

From these examples, it is clear that many universities favor academic disciplines that efficiently deliver a tangible and quantifiable education and are embracing a utilitarian or instrumental model for schooling. History professor Peter W. Fettner shares similar sentiments with both West and Tate and attributes the decline of the humanities to the trend of corporatizing the structure of the university. This, unfortunately, embraces the misguided assumption that the purpose of a “democratic” education can be understood in terms of vocationalism and instrumentalism. With this line of thought, higher education must encompass concrete, quantitative, and standardized markers for academic achievement, inextricably linked to economic productivity.

This desideratum might be grasped in a two-fold manner. First, the student is viewed as a product. Consequently, he becomes a valuable and contributory democratic citizen when acquiring the potential, through learned skill sets, to earn a sustainable living. This ensures that the student is employable and will become a contributor to the economy. Second, the university is driven toward the economic end of securing and maintaining a profit, which means that administrative decisions favor financial criteria over other concerns that fail to serve the prevailing goals of the university. 

In her powerful 2010 book Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that the education-for-profit model often leads to the termination of humanities programs because school officials deem them expendable. By and large, this mistaken view harbors a radical misconception of what the humanities can achieve. Although the faculty at Howard University continue to teach the classics to some degree, their expertise is dispersed across many departments and fields of study.

The move to dissolve the department bespeaks a value judgement, that of heedlessly relegating what the university classifies as “dead” historical thinkers to an inconsequential role in the hierarchy of great literature, in the process devaluing the concern for a well-rounded and expansive education of our students. The humanities at Howard University are relegated to an ancillary function in the curriculum, and other fields of study that are deemed to possess more educative value are prioritized. This pedagogical shift is quite an ominous message to the academic community at large, as well as a bleak harbinger of what awaits us. 

The problem is certainly not recent, but it persists and further intensifies. According to West and Tate, the neglect of the humanities in higher education is a sign of spiritual, cultural, and ethical decay, heralding the death of the intellect. This for Nussbaum, in stark terms, represents the callous disregard for the human soul. It is literature, and by extension the classics, which invites students into a world where thought blossoms in the soul and then reaches out to embrace the souls of others. Nussbaum also reminds us of the devastating cuts in the humanities that occurred at SUNY Albany and the University of Nevada at Las Vegas in 2010. Now, 13 years later, SUNY Potsdam is set to repeat the administrative decisions to excise elements of the liberal arts from the curriculum. 

This crisis reveals an epistemological issue related to forms of knowledge and their subsequent educational value. Social critic Mark Slouka, in his 2010 book, Essays from the Nick of Time, recognizes that the education-for-profit model privileges science and mathematics in the curriculum. The disciplines of science and math offer knowledge expressed through theorems, formulae, quantitative relations, and proofs. They make sense because they compute and do things, securing tangible results. Thus, they are everything administrators adopting the education-for-profit model require.

What types of knowledge might be linked to the humanities? If it is possible to link modes of “calculative” thought with science and math, the humanities might be said to express a “meditative” mindset and affective understanding, the type of knowledge associated with ethics and values.  

Historian and philosophy scholar Richard Wolin acknowledges that the results that the humanities might be said to “produce” cannot be rigorously tested and validated to allay all skeptical doubt. However, as Wolin contends, an education in the liberal arts “instructs us in the virtues of reasoning and moral judgment: how to distinguish the substantive from the superficial, what is cogent from what is slack, the convincing from the merely suggestive.”

Can we find educational value in the humanities? And if so, how might that be conceived? True, they offer no direct instrumental value; they “bake no bread,” as Bertrand Russell said about philosophy in his classic 1912 work The Problems of Philosophy. However, they offer a wealth of potential value for informing and transforming our lives and world.

In the tradition of Wilhelm von Humboldt and Bildung, an education in the humanities is grounded in the student’s formation and transformation, based on active participation and an intimate concern for the student’s inner life. This represents the ancient ideal of sustained critical questioning and the intrinsic value of living with ideas. Here, value is found in the pursuit of truth and wisdom rather than in their possession.

This is, undoubtedly, a challenging task. Critical self-exploration in dialogue, which leads down a path of uncertainty with no perceivable end in sight, is unsettling. This indicates that “learning” is not the terminal end, or telos, of one’s education but, rather, an ongoing process of interpreting texts and ideas drawn from literature. However, it is not only literature from antiquity that is of concern, for as West and Tate rightly observe, an education in the humanities also includes engagement with the ever-developing history of the humanities. In a humanities education done right, students are challenged by the literary tradition of “great thinkers over generations that grows richer the more we add our own voices and the excellence of voices from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere in the world.”

As stated, education in science, math, and technology offers discernable results, and so they are deemed “successful.” However, Slouka calls for educators to reconceptualize the definition of academic “success.” When privileging science and math in the curriculum at the expense of the humanities, education sacrifices what is most essential: the important civic function of the humanities. As a result, we produce “a nation of employees, not citizens.” In essence, “the humanities are a superb delivery mechanism for what we might call democratic values”—courage, vision, and civic virtuethe influence of which contributes to the development of well-rounded civic-minded individuals. This too should be considered part of a successful education.

Literary critic Robert Scholes, in his classic 1985 monograph, Textual Power: Literary Theory and the Teaching of Englishechoes these sentiments, arguing that educators must take seriously the role of the humanities in the development of informed and ethical democratic citizens, “who will themselves play many institutional roles in their lives, either critically aware or as insensitive dupes and victims.” This calls for academic institutions to establish and nurture the connection between the humanities and the world of our lived experience. Indeed, the potential exists to transform the student’s disposition through critical dialogue with historical texts in ways that radically challenge and call into question unexamined opinions and beliefs. This reveals the need for the critical questioning of traditions and authority, including the authority of the academic institution providing her education. 

Nussbaum concludes on a somewhat pessimistic note, invoking Socrates, who lost his life to the ideal of persistent questioning. The type of authentic questioning that is the hallmark of an education in the humanities is the precise educational ideal in danger of vanishing in contemporary education. On a less pessimistic note, it is possible that the humanities will persist despite the rise of science, math, and technology in the curriculum, due to their perennial appeal and necessary contribution to cultivating the human spirit.

The academic, administrative, and bureaucratic structures giving order to the university represent systems of power influencing and shaping our view and reception of the humanities. However, they are not guaranteed to determine the humanities’ ultimate fate. Couching the issue in digestible terms, it might be possible to gain newfound confidence in the midst of the crisis.

It is the difference between accepting the view discussed throughout (a view that criticizes the lack of instrumental value found in the humanities) and adopting an empowered critical attitude that pushes hard against that disingenuous view. This is the attempt to continue to challenge students’ ideas while providing them with rich material from the living tradition of literature. It empowers them to draw inspiration and gain the confidence to rigorously challenge their own ideas and those of others.  

James M. Magrini specializes in the philosophy of education and social inquiry. He taught philosophy and ethics at the College of DuPage for over 15 years.  

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