Are the humanities "relevant"? Should they have to "justify their worth"? I am disturbed by last week's NYT article in which these questions are posed, not because it's reporting an unfortunate, if not entirely newsworthy, phenomenon—the decline of interest in the formal study of humanities given their seemingly inherent impracticality and the excessive costs of education—but because these questions are simply wrongheaded.
The majority of the pro-humanities experts cited in the article perpetuate the error. Columbia's Andrew Delbanco worries about the perceived relevance of studying the humanities. I think he may have chosen the wrong word. Relevance to what? Put another way, how can the humanities not be relevant to the seemingly infinite varieties of topics, themes, problems, and occasions they address? Take the article headline, for example. How are the humanities not relevant to "tough times"?
By viewing the humanities as relevant, I don't mean to endorse the comments of Yale Law School's Anthony Kronman, who seems at once willfully oblivious to history and dangerously naïve, implying that greed, irresponsibility, and fraud are somehow peculiar to today's world, and suggesting that humanistic reflection will manage to fix that circumstance. To my mind, the engaging aspect of so much work in the humanities is precisely their not being "well-equipped" to do much of anything. Perhaps they facilitate accomplishment only incidentally. One learns from poetry, for instance, how to read for a kaleidoscopic range of meanings, a skill that could bolster one's work as an attorney. But that's not the only, let alone the primary, reason for reading poetry.
How are "producing enough trained engineers and scientists" and the study of the humanities mutually exclusive enterprises in the struggle to assure "America’s economic vitality"? Why only our "economic" vitality? I'm with Derek Bok: "There’s a lot more to a liberal education than improving the economy." One might even demand engineers and scientists to justify their worth in humanistic terms.
I cribbed this post's title from an old book review in Slate that discusses the growing popularity of the study of Latin. This is one of those instances of remarkable, perhaps not merely fortuitous timing, when the report of the imminent collapse of the humanities, a "prerequisite for personal growth and participation in a free democracy," is proclaimed pretty much just as the study of its emblematic, dead language becomes fodder for best sellers.