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“A Glimpse of the Divinity”: What the Humanities Can Provide

Christ Church's Great Hall

Christ Church’s Great Hall

Economist Douglass North in passing posits a theory of demand for government funding of education in his book The Economic Growth of the United States, 1790-1860.

Investment in knowledge represents a deliberate decision by a society to divert resources from more immediately productive pursuits. Implicitly or explicitly, a society makes assumptions about the returns on such investment which affect the level of expenditure of tax monies. The amount of capital diverted into investment in knowledge will depend upon the structure of political power and the attitudes of that group in society which is in a position to enact legislation regarding taxes and public expenditure. . . . [There will be an] unwillingness to invest in human capital where it is not obvious to the dominant political-economic group that such an investment will yield a high return to them

Some people blame reaction to the adversary culture of tenured radicals in universities today, particularly in the humanities, for increasing legislative resistance to funding public universities. That explanation is too dramatic. The real answer, I think, lies in the whimper rather than in the bang. Per North, voters, and legislators, don’t see much of a “return to them” from the humanities any more. This creates the larger political problem for public universities, particularly with humanities which traditionally have been the spiritual core of the university.

Vocationally oriented disciplines aren’t a problem for public support of public universities. People can understand the return to them of universities training engineers and schoolteachers, and even bench scientists and business executives. Part of this support stems from the practical bent of mind Americans have possessed since colonial days. Part of it today stems from parental worry in an age in which economic uncertainty has crept into the ranks of the white-collar as well as the blue.

This practical bent of American education means the humanities already start with one strike against them. (This is true for social science as well, but social science is distinct enough from the humanities to merit its own analysis.) Per North’s political economy of education, what return does government provision for the humanities in universities yield to voters and legislators?

The answer to this question has changed for the humanities over the last century or so. Start with the comparison. Vocationally oriented college disciplines provide concrete answers to the question of what they yield relative to the humanities. For the most part, they produce, or help to produce, things of palpable value, they train for a job: engineers, teachers, business executives, even bench scientists (for the most part). Beyond the value of this training to putative employees, and employers, these vocations also generate identifiable public goods. Voters understand, even if they are neither the employer nor the employed, that they gain from what engineers, teachers, and the others do.

So what does study of the humanities generate or produce? Today’s popular answer is that the humanities produce people skilled in “critical thinking.” And that’s true enough. I still very much value the training I received as an undergraduate philosophy major.

Yet, despite the conceit, the humanities hold no monopoly on critical thinking. More significantly for the political economy of public support of the humanities is the “critical” part of “critical thinking.” The “critical” part often seems to be the only thing students take away from their training in the humanities. As R.R. Reno, editor of the magazine, First Things, remarks in a talk he gives titled, “Against Critical Thinking,” “At every turn our education is designed to motivate us to do as Descartes did, which is to demolish our inherited house of knowledge so as to rebuild it in reasonable, reliable ways. But not much gets rebuilt.”

We can contest Reno’s claim. Nonetheless, it is true enough. Plus, more significantly for North’s hypothesis, Reno’s claim is widely shared today among voters, even if only implicitly. This is the dramatic shift that undercuts public support for the humanities in higher education. Or, perhaps more accurately, this is the change by which the humanities have cut the ground from under themselves.

To be sure, criticism has always been a part of the humanities. Critically so. But the center of the humanities, in the past, have been centrally oriented toward perceiving, if not also understanding and articulating, the true, the good, and the beautiful. As in T.S. Eliot’s explanation of criticism in a letter to Stephen Spender, real criticism occurs at the end of a process, a process that require, first, surrender, then recovery, and, then only after the first two moments, criticism.

But what is it that we see or experience in the humanities? I have a hard time improving on an answer Tocqueville provides in a passage discussing “In What Spirit the Americans Cultivate the Arts”:

I doubt whether Raphael studied the minute intricacies of the mechanism of the human body as thoroughly as the draftsmen of our own time. He did not attach the same importance as they do to rigorous accuracy on this point because he aspired to surpass nature. He sought to make of man something which should be superior to man and to embellish beauty itself. David and his pupils, on the contrary, were as good anatomists as they were painters. They wonderfully depicted the models that they had before their eyes, but they rarely imagined anything beyond them; they followed nature with fidelity, while Raphael sought for something better than nature. They have left us an exact portraiture of man, but he discloses in his works a glimpse of the Divinity.

This is what the humanities offer, at least traditionally: “A glimpse of the Divinity.” The humanities can – can, but need not necessarily – introduce students to the sublime, to something beyond themselves, but, also, being about something beyond themselves, it is about themselves as well. There cannot be an imago Dei, after all, without perceiving the Dei.

To bring all this back to North’s political economy, having people of this sort around is a public good. Their influence lifts society, both directly and indirectly. To be sure, this effect is more ethereal than what the engineer provides, but it is something that even those in power can perceive as gain relative to the absence of this effect.

Of course, most faculty in the humanities, with notable exceptions, don’t believe in the good, the truth, or the beautiful, let alone in a Divinity. It’s all power constructs, or emotive categories, or whatever. One can’t glimpse something if one never looks.

Only the critical project remains for the humanities; the negative project, to demolish what others think they glimpse. To be sure, there’s honesty in that, at least. Today’s humanities’ faculties don’t teach what they don’t believe. But conceding honestly all around, public universities can’t really blame the public if, in response to this shift, the public concludes that today’s instruction in the humanities offers little yield to them, and so declines to continue to subsidize it.

Reader Discussion

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on June 20, 2017 at 09:25:42 am

"... concludes that today’s instruction in the humanities offers little yield to them, and so declines to continue to subsidize it. "

Perhaps, it is not that the public cannot see the "yield," but, rather, that they simply dislike the yield.

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gabe
on June 20, 2017 at 09:31:09 am

All those bearded psuedo -intellects trying to replace God and the Bible and finally ending up with nothing(nihilism). The emperor has no clothes.
Nothing can replace the Bible for insight into humanity.

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Otto
on June 20, 2017 at 12:03:23 pm

1. What accounts for legislators reducing their subsidies for college education? Arguably the general subsidies are no longer appropriate: The returns on education are sufficient incentive for most people to pursue a (legitimate) college education if they possibly can. So when government subsidizes college education, it’s basically subsidizing the rich. Loans are a more rational way to finance educations.

2. “The humanities” encompasses such a wide-ranging collection of fields, it makes little sense to lump them together for any purpose other than administrative.

Archetypically, I think of people studying arts and literature, in various languages, in order to gain some insight into the human condition. But clearly people also study these topics as a form of vocational training: They want to become professional writers/artists, or at least gain a functional mastery of a language (including English). These are utterly distinct motivations, even if they often arise in the same person.

Similarly, the study of philosophy can be regarded as a kind of practical education in “critical thinking” and persuasion, even if philosophy students are initially motivated by a more motiveless curiosity about the nature of reality.

How should we characterize the study of mathematics? People often associate it with science, because it is used in that context. But whereas science focuses on empiricism—drawing conclusions based on tests of some external reality—math appears to be about the LEAST empirical field possible. (Ok, the use of some statistical methods—such as Monty Carlo simulations—generate results that kind of resemble empiricism. And there was that proof of the four color theorum whereby a computer ran through all possible arrangements of two-dimensional objects to prove that you’d never need more than four colors to color a 2-dimentional map and avoid putting the same color next to each other; that was kind of empirical-ish.)

In most respects, math looks a lot like philosophy. So why does math evade the criticisms leveled at the humanities? Simply because of its perceived utility, I guess. (Kind of ironic: The most mathematical science, physics, similarly gets a pass. Yet undergraduate physics degrees are famously impractical in the job market—unless the Pentagon is hiring.)

3. Yes, critical thinking can erode social cohesion. Yes, I value social cohesion—a group’s ability to persevere in the face of adversity. And critical thinking can help societies change in productive ways. We need a balance of conservation and creative destruction.

Not infrequently I encounter "practical" people who disparage the humanities. But when I ask who their heroes are, they name often people who were social leaders and visionaries: people who achieved their acclaim by exercising skills in leadership and communicating and courage and interpersonal relationships--skills more closely associated with humanities than any other academic pursuit.

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nobody.really
on June 21, 2017 at 08:44:36 am

If one ever has the good fortune to visit Rome, the visit would be incomplete without a visit to the Pantheon, and inside, Raphael's tomb. The inscription on the tomb is in Italian, but reads near as eloquent in its English translation:

"By whom, while alive, Mother Nature feared defeat, and with whom, upon his death, she feared herself to die."

This is the dividend of the Humanities, once.

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Paul Binotto
on June 21, 2017 at 10:38:10 am

Also when in Rome, drop by the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide or "Congregation for Propagating the Faith"; I think you pass the old building as you go from the Trevi Fountain to the Spanish Steps. Gregory XV organized this committee of cardinals in 1622 to supervise foreign missions. But arguably their chief accomplishment was to bequeath to the world the word "propaganda"--one of those things that training in the humanities is supposed to help us identify.

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nobody.really
on June 21, 2017 at 11:29:50 am

In keeping with the unintended good will of your comments I will turn the other cheek as to any other self-propagating religious bigotry so fashionably exercised these days.

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Paul Binotto
on June 21, 2017 at 15:44:15 pm

The implication of your serial discourse(s) on math and then physics *could* leave one with the impression that physics is also a "least empirical" discipline. However, that is as far from the truth as the earth is from the Crab nebula.

Physics is clearly defined by an empirical approach and even the most speculative of theoretical physics must ultimately seek validation via the empirical method.

You are, however, quite correct with respect to "heroes" and their attributes. It is also clear that it is from a study of the (CLASSIC) Humanities, not the infantile gender/race/ studies humanities of the current period, that such attributes are first presented and, hopefully, incorporated by the individual.

Then again, one could very well be accused of cultural appropriation should he decide to incorporate some of the cardinal virtues of ancient Greece, Rome, Byzantium. (See latest proposal by the United Nations to make "cultural appropriation a "bloody" crime.)

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gabe
on June 21, 2017 at 15:47:38 pm

Although in their eyes (seeing them as they see themselves -Strauss) they simply spread the "faith" and in so doing provided immense benefits to those less fortunate. As a child, I remember collecting monies for the Society - that money went to the needy both here and abroad.

So no, they accomplished something more than coining the term "propaganda". That was not their chief mission - although you seem to be pretty adept at it. Ha!

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gabe

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