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Asher '15: The problem with arguing for the humanities

During a bout of soul-searching last semester, I resolved to clarify for myself once and for all why I was studying classics and, in the process, justify spending four months in Italy touring Roman and Greek ruins. I was somewhat successful, though what I would like to offer here are my reflections on what did not inspire me when my studies felt devoid of purpose.

Last August, President Christina Paxson published the text of a speech she gave last March in The New Republic. In the speech, entitled “The Economic Case for Saving the Humanities,” Paxson laid out her reasoning for why funding the study of the humanities is, in her words, “essential.” It was genuinely heartening to read, and I saw it as an indication of good things to come in terms of her nurturing the humanities at Brown. At the same time, however, I think the premise of the speech is fundamentally flawed. We shouldn’t try to make economic arguments for the study of the humanities because not only is it unnecessary, but often there is not an economic case to be made.

I do not fault Paxson for the speech. She was responding to a common sentiment in our country questioning why we continue to support the “useless” studies of art and literature. She was making an argument that we as a nation have needed to hear.

It is possible to come up with practical applications for pure humanities studies and, believe me, I’ve heard and parroted many of them. To take examples from my subject of choice, classics, translating Plato’s Symposium, prepares you to sift through legal contracts. Most medical and scientific terms are derived from Greek and Latin roots, and successful consulting firms love people who can see the “big picture.”

These statements are not false, but I cannot imagine them convincing anyone who did not already think the humanities were worth studying. If your primary goal is to obtain a high-paying job straight out of college, and you’re deciding between studying applied math-economics and classics, I would heartily recommend the former. Studying Attic Greek is the best possible preparation for reading Attic Greek, and little else. If you want to prepare for Wall Street, microeconomics is more applicable and, I’d imagine, more immediately rewarding.

I don’t understand why we need to try to make weak, half-baked arguments based on applicability when there is an infinitely better one to be made on the basis of personal enrichment. Let’s take the famed weekend-killer, organic chemistry, as a counter-example. While I do know people who love studying orgo, I have found them to be the exception rather than the rule. If I were to try to convince an aspiring doctor to take the class, because it’s a prerequisite for medical school, I would have an irrefutable argument. However, if I were to try to convince that same person to take it, because organic chemistry is at the heart of nearly all of our daily molecular interaction, and to understand chemistry is to understand life on a basic level … Well, compelling as my sales pitch might be, I wouldn’t fault him or her for opting to take an art history class on French Impressionism instead.

The humanities do not even always aim to provide practical knowledge. That’s not the point. If we humanists try to fight for funding and attention on the basis of economics, we’re destined to lose, because ultimately, funding the writing of books that sell 300 copies makes no fiscal sense — and we should not pretend that it does.

The problem is that the true benefits of studying the humanities are harder to communicate to someone who has never studied them. Nevertheless, I’ll give it a shot: Humanities are the ultimate “why.” Human beings live, and care so much about living, so that we might produce something that lasts beyond our time on Earth. It’s what distinguishes us from every other species on the planet. The humanities are a chronicle of life trying to understand itself.

It is vitally important that we train engineers to build water pipelines to remote communities in Africa and train doctors and medical researchers to expand the frontiers of our knowledge of how to heal the human body. All of that knowledge and effort is only useful, however, insofar as at least some of the people we help continue to engage in attempting to solve the riddle of why existing is ultimately worth it. People who would live in a world without literature and the arts — and I truly believe that, when all is said and done, very few such people exist — are beyond the reach of argumentation. It is undeniable that, in the face of recession, political oppression, famine, war, plague and whatever else the world can throw at us, human beings have continued to produce and consume art.

I’m immensely privileged to be able to study the fruits of these efforts — the humanities — even if for only four years. I hope and expect to offer my children that same privilege — not so they can get a job — but so they can be a little better at being human.


Adam Asher ’15 is a (proud) classics concentrator.


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