bicycle on campus of a university

A few weeks ago, a reader of this blog sent me the following message:

Hello Liza, I have a longstanding inner dialogue going on about the usefulness of academic humanities like literature, philosophy, and history. I love the humanities and I think they are and will always be extremely important but there are some people who seem to think they should be replaced entirely by science. And what is perhaps even worse, there are a lot of people who look down their noses on anything that’s not science as inferior. I was curious if you, having two degrees in English, had any thoughts about this. I was also hoping that if you do you could post your thoughts in one of your daily writings.

I very much appreciate the question, and I would like to attempt an answer today. For a long time after receiving this message, I could not think of how to answer it in less than a full-length book. Mounting a comprehensive defense of the humanities would result in a huge (and probably staggeringly boring!) treatise.

I would have to go through each discipline—not just literature, philosophy, and history, but also visual art, linguistics, religious studies, theater, women’s studies, modern and ancient languages, classics, music, anthropology, et cetera—and detail all the ways in which they are useful to humankind. Yes, dear reader, listen to me spout forth: communication skills are essential to maintaining healthy relationships and sharing ideas with others; and art provides a bulwark against existential despair and empowers the disenfranchised; and studying the past sheds a powerful light on the present and future; and philosophical and religious ideas help people think about old dilemmas in new ways; and so on.

I am yawning already!—not because these topics aren’t interesting, but because the humanities don’t need justification at this juncture in history. Their worth was established long, long ago. Think of the flourishings of Ancient Greece and, later, the European Renaissance, as well as flourishings of art and technology in non-Western civilizations. Great cultural moments bring together advancements in both the arts and the sciences: they have always gone hand in hand. As a result, most of today’s great universities still combine these foundational disciplines into one large “college of arts and sciences.”

We may as well mount a shiny new defense for the roundness of the earth, or the evolution of species, or the dangers of smoking, or the virtues of calling your mother every once in a while.

Don’t get me wrong; these things all needed to be defended, at some point. And we should not take their defense for granted. If there is a serious debate going on about whether it’s virtuous to call your mother every once in a while, and there are complicating facts and factors on both sides of the argument, and the best scholars in the world are concerned with getting to the bottom of this issue—why then, by all means, mount your defense! Write that treatise!

But here’s what I suspect is really going on, behind the scenes of your question. It’s not our society’s foremost thinkers who are debating the usefulness of the humanities. It’s your bitter uncle Rusty who tries to engage people in false debates during family gatherings, so he can prove what a deep thinker he is. It’s muckraking radio commentators who make a living getting people riled up about nonissues, while ignoring the truly important questions. (Getting to the bottom of the important questions might cause some tycoon to lose money.)

One summer break when I was an undergraduate, I went hiking with some friends from high school. Enamored with the beauty of the swampy, forested area through which we were walking, on a cute wooden platform, and thinking about my indecision about whether to major in biology or English, I suddenly cried out, “Oh, I’d love to know the names of every one of these plants!”

One of my friends, who was studying engineering, replied, “That’s stupid! What good would knowing the names do? The important thing is to know what the plants are useful for. Their names are irrelevant, and learning them would be a waste of time.”

As the insecure young woman I was at the time, I had no reply. I was stunned. I felt ashamed for having said the wrong thing (though I shouldn’t have). But I did make one good decision in the aftermath of the event: I stopped hanging out with that person. In retrospect, I think that’s the best decision I could have made. What was I supposed to do, mount a defense for the existence of language?

Interestingly enough, this brings me back to Brené Brown. Here is what she writes in Dare to Lead about judging others:

“Based on research, there are two ways to predict when we are going to judge: We judge in areas where we’re most susceptible to shame, and we judge people who are doing worse than we are in those areas. So if you find yourself feeling incredibly judgmental about appearance, and you can’t figure out why, that’s a clue that it’s a hard issue for you.”

So what was going on with my friend? I suspect, based on what I know about his background, that he was under constant, intense pressure while growing up. He was expected to work part time while in high school to help support his family, and also to perform at a high academic level so he could get a scholarship to a good college and work toward a degree that would guarantee him a high-paying job. Meanwhile, there I was, a walking, talking placard for the arts, whose daddy was paying her way through an expensive school, just so she could dither around in indecisiveness about whether or not to major in literature. From his perspective, I probably seemed to be doing worse than him in the area of striving to get a high-paying job; and he probably felt insecure about his ability to measure up and actually one day get that job. So he made his judgmental remark about language.

If you know someone who looks down on the humanities, try not to take it personally. It’s not about you. It’s not even about the humanities. It’s about a fear of not measuring up.

If Uncle Rusty tries to engage you in any more “friendly debates,” it’s important to tell him clearly to stop, or else you won’t hang out with him anymore. Then stick to that. My story about my high school friend is only the least dramatic of instances in my life where I had to take that hard line—even with people very close to me. I learned the hard way, unfortunately, that not setting such boundaries is detrimental to my physical and mental health.

This might seem harsh, but as someone who reads and writes for both a vocation and an avocation, and who, as a result, both earns money to live on and enjoys the benefits of art and creativity and communication and curiosity, I can’t let people try to shame me into thinking that what I do is not worthwhile. If I had to spend all my time continually justifying the value of the humanities, and the rising of the sun in the east, and the whiteness of snow, and the aliveness of Elvis (well, maybe not that one!)—I wouldn’t get anything else done. Let’s not waste our time rehashing the logic behind old truths that everyone already agrees with, deep down, underneath the screen of fear.

Of course, if Uncle Rusty wants to ask you a genuine question about your humanistic pursuits (your writing, your philosophical ideas, what you learned from the last history book you read, etc.), and listen to your answer, and perhaps share with you something he’s passionate about, that’s different. In that case—let’s get this party started, Unc!

Do you have a question you would like me to answer in a blog post? If so, send it to me in a private message. Thanks again to the author of today’s question!