At first I thought it was going to be attacking them as unimportant, but Stover is actually making a quite different point.
When people make a “case” for humanities—why students should still consider majoring in English, or philosophy, why colleges and universities should continue having departments in the disciplines of the humanities—they are making an instrumental argument. The humanities are good because they help you think better, they develop moral, they’re about ethics, they’re about truth, they unleash creativity.
Finally, we are most commonly told that the humanities are about skills. There is something valid about this argument: learning to parse Sanskrit undoubtedly entails some general cognitive benefit. But those benefits are always byproducts. No one wants to learn Sanskrit because it will give them a leg up in a fast-moving economy. It will never be a compelling case for the humanities that they are like a gym for the mind. Forget about attracting administrators — that argument will not even get you any students.Stover counters the earlier instrumental arguments as well.
In the end, he says the humanities are important because they are precisely what makes something a university rather than being a polytechnic or an advanced high school.
Still, whatever administrators and legislators might think, the fact that there is no case for the humanities is irrelevant. The humanities do not need to make a case within the university, because the humanities are the heart of the university. Golfers do not need to justify to their foursomes the rationale for hitting little white balls; philatelists do not need to explain to their stamp-collecting societies what makes them excited about vintage postage. So too, for humanists: The university can be many things, but without us, a university it will not be.I would offer another argument for the humanities, which is that we are, by historical standards, an insanely wealthy society. The median income has stagnated for four decades, but taken in aggregate, we have continued to get wealthier.
Nobody is surprised that a country with a per capita gross domestic product of $2,000 can’t allow itself the luxury of people becoming experts in the contemporaries of Chaucer, but that is distinctly not our situation.
50 years ago, our GDP per capita (measured in dollars with the purchasing power of 2016) was $25,800 and we had robust humanities departments as a matter of course.
In 2016, our GDP per capita (measured in those same 2016 dollars) was $58,500, and we’re claiming that it’s just too expensive for us to afford these fields of study, unless someone can show that they’re actually “good for something.”
If we somehow cannot find the money for the humanities, the issue is not that we can’t afford them, but that we have decided we do not value them in themselves.
Stover offers another explanation of what the humanities are “for,” and it’s a reason that reaches back to ancient Rome with the teaching of the grammaticus and the middle ages with the reading of Virgil. Knowing how to comment on Aristotle didn’t really make you a better bureaucrat, lawyer, or estate manager, but it marked you as part of a class, and an international one at that.
Deep down, what most humanists value about the humanities is that they offer participation in a community in which they can share similar tastes in reading, art, food, travel, music, media, and yes, politics. We might talk about academic diversity, but the academy is a tribe, and one with relatively predictable tastes. ...
As teachers, what humanists want most of all is to initiate their students into that class. Despite occasional conservative paranoia, there is not some sinister academic plot to brainwash students with liberal dogma. Instead, humanists are doing what they have always done, trying to bring students into a class loosely defined around a broad constellation of judgments and tastes. This constellation might include political judgments, but it is never reducible to politics.Stover admits that,
The mere existence of a class is, however, not a case for its existence in society as a whole. Telling the state and the public that they should support higher education in order to turn out more people like the professorial class is unlikely to generate any enthusiasm.I wonder how much of the current dudgeon over the humanities is driven by the shift in the structure of how higher education is paid for and the rewards it provides, combined with the notion in the last few decades that “everyone” should go to college.