Blog Post

Why the Humanities are Indispensable

I wrote this at the request of a colleague of mine here at Stanford.  She simply asked me to give her my thoughts on why the humanities are important, and, in particular, what the humanities teach students that they cannot be taught in other disciplines.

Here it is—forgive the typos or rough spots—I wrote it in one take on email:

"As it happens I have just returned from a meeting with the President and CEO of the California Council on the Humanities, Ralph Lewin, who is doing astounding things in the state. We discussed just these issues in terms of his agency's activities. 

I will tell you the same anecdote I told him, and have expressed elsewhere. While people say the humanities are in crisis, I believe it is an institutional crisis: I don't think there is a "crisis" outside of these institutions and their "priorities" at all. People still care passionately about the humanities even if they do not know it by that name. Students do not tend to major in the humanities for the obvious reason that the world they are growing up in is not the world their professors (especially those of my generation) grew up in, where jobs were not a scarcity, and in fact when one could easily move through many careers and jobs before settling on one. Instead, today's students have been raised in an intensely competitive atmosphere from day one, and the financial meltdown of 2007-8 has only made things worse. When my son was a 1-yr-old, we were in Kyoto on an ACLS fellowship, and were told that we were so lucky because the daycare center he was placed in was the one diplomats' kids went to—our neighbor was the translator for the crown prince. Robin Mamlet, ex-dean of admissions at Stanford, tells of being asked to address kids at Nixon Elementary. It has only gotten worse. 

Practicality is not the name of the game even, it is hireability. 

However, along with my regular teaching at Stanford, I often give courses in Continuing Studies and in the Masters of Liberal Arts program here. My students are working adults by and large. They pay good money to attend a 2-hr class at the end of their work day. Some work 50-60 hrs a week. They commute. One student came to my class from Monterey. I ask them why. They say that ever since taking a few humanities classes in college they have been deprived of a chance to talk about things that matter to them, outside of the workplace. We do not just discuss literature—we discuss life in a way that it is able to be discussed through literature. They tell of their marriages, child-rearing, of caring for elderly parents. They express their puzzlement, their ambivalence, about life and are extremely happy to enter into a conversation with Shakespeare's Lear, Roth's Portnoy, Morrison's Sula. They enjoy the fact that no ready answer is apparent or even available. They unapologetically dwell in ambiguity, and don't feel like flawed human beings because they do not have The Answer. 

They also find it qualitatively different from a book club. They appreciate the seriousness, the insight into the artistry of words that great authors display. They love to see how a complex message can be stated plainly; they love to see a complex presentation of a life issue be made relevant to their own lives. They take heart in seeing how different cultures at different times have dealt with universal issues in a particular way. 

The best way of expressing this comes, I think, from Toni Morrison. Morrison was doing archival research when she came across the story of Margaret Garner, a run-away slave who killed her baby daughter rather than have her live out a live of slavery. Garner was tried and convicted, but she was not convicted of murder, she was convicted of destruction of property. Asked why she wrote Beloved , Morrison said, "I knew the facts, but I wanted to discover the truth." I take her to be saying she wanted to know the human significance of the act and what drove Garner to do it. And by human significance I mean at that time and in our age, as we read the novel. 

History can tell us the facts, law can tell us about the legal statute, philosophy can talk about morality and ethics, perhaps science can help us pin down the exact time of death and neuroscience the amount of pain the child went through, but I want to argue that only by carefully and patiently reading through the complex verbal art of the novel can we get at the multi-perspectival, historically-shifting range of "significance" that this historical event had and has. 

More than a "skill" to be taught in ten weeks, literary reading, and the humanities in general, is to me something conveyable and teachable only after establishing the proper environment for this kind of thinking and reflection on the human condition. Students come to Stanford doubly handicapped in this respect. They are taught in science to find the "right" answer (and there is only one), and in English they are taught to find the answer that lands them the best AP score. 

We expect to teach students advanced thinking at Stanford. To do this in the humanities, as far as I am concerned, requires us to create an environment that balances the momentum students have embraced as the only real goal—as some have remarked, to game the system and get out of here with a job. Lowering the bar for the humanities, or even dismissing the humanities as not having anything specific to teach us, is not only abrogating our responsibilities as teachers, but also ignoring the very patent evidence that the humanities are our solace and aid in life, and we need them now more than ever."

David Palumbo-Liu's picture

David Palumbo-Liu is professor of comparative literature at Stanford.  His most recent publications include a volume on world-systems analysis co-edited with Bruce Robbins and Nirvana Tanoukhi entitled Immanuel Wallerstein and the Problem of the World" System, Scale, Culture (Duke University Press, 2011), and The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age (also from Duke).  He is the founding editor of Occasion: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities, which is housed here on Arcade.