Columns

Malik ’18: A different world

By
Opinions Columnist
Monday, October 5, 2015

I recently read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that almost broke my heart. In his piece “The Humanities at the End of the World,” Alexander Jacobs, a PhD candidate in history at Vanderbilt University, discusses the debate over the study of the humanities. He contends that despite people arguing that the humanities are useful and worth studying, the way American society has developed leaves no space for the humanities today.

Jacobs explains that “since the 1970s, the United States has gradually dismantled its ramshackle framework of social security, with the result that economic risk is now borne primarily by individuals and families, rather than spread across institutional and social life.” He further explains that “in this world, your average college freshman can look forward to a lifetime of scrambling to avoid being swindled on everything, from student loans to housing, health care and retirement savings … the freshman’s only hope for consistent access to a paycheck and benefits is to make herself indispensable to those with wealth and power.” Jacobs concludes his article by stating that “in a world of 401(k)’s, health-insurance ‘marketplaces,’ income volatility and part-time work, we can defend the humanities until we are blue in the face. None of it matters. We cannot hope to engineer an affection for culture in the absence of real material security.”

I support the humanities with a deep love and passion, and as futile as it may be, I will try to defend them here by explaining that the humanities provide essential tools with which society can be improved. Before I start, I would like to express a few ideas. First, in my discussion of numerous problems in society, I will not limit myself to solely the issues raised in Jacobs’ article. I also truly believe that fields other than the humanities, such as science, engineering and mathematics, are as worthy of study as the humanities. Also, I agree with Jacobs’ point that, due to their financial needs, many students cannot devote their lives to the humanities.

I think the humanities are essential tools with which we can expand our minds. They offer important perspectives on numerous aspects of life and new ways of looking at the world around us. Through these viewpoints, we may find flaws in the world and decide to change what is wrong. For example, someone might be troubled by the current state of the U.S. economy that Jacobs describes. Instead of despairing, this person might turn to history to see periods of time during which the distribution of wealth in this country was more balanced. This person might see what conditions led to the favorable economic situation of the past and use that knowledge to improve the current economy. Obviously, knowledge of economics, business and politics would be necessary to reduce the inequality of wealth in this country, but these economic, business and political endeavours would be informed by a humanistic perspective.

Not only can the humanities help guide actions that are unrelated to the humanities, but they can also serve as an important source of opposition and criticism against numerous aspects of society. Certain leaders of businesses might be so focused on what measures they can take to maximize their profits that they might not pay attention to what they shouldn’t do. But a philosopher might explain that certain actions, such as overworking the employees of the company and relying on suppliers that use child labor, are wrong. I don’t think economics or business as fields of study would inform the business leaders against doing what the philosopher, and many of us, would find unethical.

Hopefully, the ideas of the philosopher can translate into laws that can limit what the leaders of businesses might try to do. This is not impossible. I remember reading in my philosophy class last year that many movements for social change start with the writings of philosophers, and this seems to be true. I believe this reading might have explained that the actions taken by the revolutionaries in the French Revolution were guided by the ideas of Enlightenment philosophers. A more recent example is provided by philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein in an interview published in the Atlantic entitled “Why Study Philosophy Philosophy? ‘To Challenge Your Own Point of View.” Goldstein explains that the writings of the philosopher Peter Singer helped spur today’s animal rights movement. When I think about how people concerned with social progress today are questioning and finding numerous problems with long-held attitudes and systems in society, I think about the philosopher Michel Foucault and his valuable writings.

Important perspectives on society are provided not only by history and philosophy, but also by other humanities-related fields such as literature and art. In his speech defending libraries and the importance of reading, published in the Guardian, the writer Neil Gaiman explains that “fiction can show you a different world” and that when “you’ve visited other worlds … you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: Discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.” If someone reads about a world that is better than the society she lives in, she might be inspired to improve the society around her. Also, literature can provide important warnings. When I think about technological advancements and worry about how new technology will invade different aspects of our lives, I find myself wishing that as many people as possible read Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” a startling work of dystopian fiction. We might be less willing to accept the new products that tech companies promise are good for us if we all read this book.

In his speech, Gaiman also explains that fiction allows readers to develop empathy. This is true of visual art and other fields related to the humanities, too. Science and mathematics can only do so much to figure out what it is like to be a human and explain what people go through. The humanities often complete the picture. Statistics might describe rates of poverty, while paintings and photographs can give human faces to these numbers. Information about the harmful effects of emotional abuse on children that a psychology class teaches is vital when it comes to treatment and methods of healing, while art and literature, including works such as Christina Stead’s intense novel “The Man Who Loved Children,” are important for adding dimensions to what the experience of emotional abuse is like for those who face it. Art and literature in this case may be more impactful in urging people to take action and develop systems of support and treatment for those who suffer from emotional abuse.

It seems clear that the humanities are essential to our world, and people who want to devote their lives to these fields and who are in a position to do so should. Even if the United States has no room for the humanities, as Jacobs explains, we can change this by turning to the humanities and pushing the ideas these fields teach us back into our society. If we do not do this, a grim future might await us.

Ameer Malik ’18 can be reached at ameer_malik@brown.edu.