What’s the point of the humanities? Of studying philosophy, history, literature and “soft” sciences like psychology and political science? This question has become increasingly urgent lately, as enrollment in the humanities continues to plummet. According to one analysis, the number of American students majoring in humanities has fallen from almost 20 percent in the 1960s to less than 5 percent today. One governor recently applauded the trend, saying that state schools should “produce more electrical engineers and less French literature scholars.”
Some defenses of the humanities leave me cold. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a Catholic, proposes that the humanities can be revived by “a return of serious academic interest in the possible (I would say likely) truth of religious claims.” With friends like this…
This week an LA-based public radio station, WUTC, asked me to join a discussion about the plight of the humanities. To listen, go to “In Defense of the (Liberal) Arts.” I couldn’t say everything I wanted to, so here's an updated pitch for the humanities I posted in 2013.
I started teaching a required freshman humanities course at Stevens Institute of Technology a decade ago. The syllabus included Sophocles, Plato, Shakespeare, Descartes, Kant, Marx, Nietzsche, William James, Freud, Mead—you know, Western Civilization’s Greatest Hits.
I love teaching the class, but I don’t assume students love taking it. So on the first day I ask, “How many of you would skip this course if it wasn't required?” After I assure the students they won't hurt my feelings, almost all raise their hands.
They say they came to Stevens for engineering, computer science, math, physics, pre-med, finance, digital music production, etc. They don't see the point of reading all this old impractical stuff that has nothing to do with their careers. When I ask them to guess why Stevens inflicts this course on them, someone usually says, smirking, To make us well-rounded.
Whenever I get the “well-rounded” response, I want to reply, “Does ‘well-rounded’ mean, like, chubby?” But I don't want to offend overweight students. Instead I say, “I don’t really know what ‘well-rounded’ means. Does it mean being able to chitchat about Hamlet at cocktail parties? I don't care about that.” Then I give them my pitch for the course, which goes like this:
We live in a world increasingly dominated by science. And that's fine. I became a science writer because I think science is the most exciting, dynamic, consequential part of human culture, and I wanted to be a part of that.
But it is precisely because science is so powerful that we need the humanities now more than ever. In your science, mathematics and engineering classes, you're given facts, answers, knowledge, truth. Your professors say, “This is how things are.” They give you certainty. The humanities, at least the way I teach them, give you uncertainty, doubt, skepticism.
The humanities are subversive. They undermine the claims of all authorities, whether political, religious or scientific. This skepticism is especially important when it comes to claims about humanity, about what we are, where we came from, and even what we can be and should be. Science has replaced religion as our main source of answers to these questions. Science has told us a lot about ourselves, and we’re learning more every day.
But the humanities remind us that we have an enormous capacity for deluding ourselves. They also tell us that every single human is unique, different than every other human, and each of us keeps changing in unpredictable ways. The societies we live in also keep changing--in part because of science and technology! So in certain important ways, humans resist the kind of explanations that science gives us.
The humanities are more about questions than answers, and we’re going to wrestle with some ridiculously big questions in this class. Like, What is truth anyway? How do we know something is true? Or rather, why do we believe certain things are true and other things aren’t? And how do we decide whether something is wrong or right to do, for us personally or for society as a whole?
Also, what is the meaning of life? What is the point of life? Should happiness be our goal? Well, what the hell is happiness? And should happiness be an end in itself or just a side effect of some other more important goal? Like gaining knowledge, or reducing suffering?
Each of you has to find your own answer to these questions. Socrates, one of the philosophers we're going to read, said wisdom means knowing how little you know. Socrates was a pompous ass, but there is wisdom in what he says about wisdom.
If I do my job, by the end of this course you'll question all authorities, including me. You'll question what you've been told about the nature of reality, about the purpose of life, about what it means to be a good person. Because that, for me, is the point of the humanities: they keep us from being trapped by our own desire for certainty.
What Is Philosophy's Point? Part I (See also Parts 2, 3, 4 and 5)