More on the Worth of the Humanities

Several weeks ago, we posted an article from the New York Times about the place of the humanities in a recession (click here for the original post).  As a follow-up, here is another important voice in the discussion of the value of the humanities in higher education.

Wilfred McClay, one of our Keynote Speakers at our Oxbridge 2008 C.S. Lewis Summer Insitute, has weighed in on the importance of the humanities in an article in The Wilson Quarterly (a publication of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars) titled “The Burden of the Humanities.”

Here are some excerpts:

Lamentations about the sad state of the humanities in modern America have a familiar, indeed almost ritualistic, quality about them. The humanities are among those unquestionably nice endeavors, like animal shelters and ­tree-­planting projects, about which nice people invariably say nice things. But there gets to be something vaguely annoying about all this cloying uplift. One longs for the moral clarity of a swift kick in the ­rear….

The distinctive task of the humanities, unlike the natural sciences and social sciences, is to grasp human things in human terms, without converting or reducing them to something else: not to physical laws, mechanical systems, biological drives, psychological disorders, social structures, and so on. The humanities attempt to understand the human condition from the inside, as it were, treating the human person as subject as well as object, agent as well as acted-upon….

The chief point to make here is that the humanities do have a use, an important use-an essential use-in our lives. Not that we can’t get along without them. Certainly not in the same sense that we can’t get along without a steady supply of air, water, and nutrients to sustain organic life, and someone to make candles and books for the world’s poets. But we need the humanities in order to understand more fully what it means to be human, and to permit that knowledge to shape and nourish the way we ­live.

For the full text of the article, please click here. To read Stanley Fish’s article “Will the Humanities Save Us?,” the article to which Wilfred McClay is responding, click here.

Update 4/7/09: For a humorous, satirical take on the survival of the humanities during a recession (especially aimed at readers who work in higher education), click here to read “Looking Backward: How the Humanities Survived the Great Crash of 2009” by Angela Sorby.