Humanities: how not to defend them, and how to do it (1)

Credit: Quinn Dombrowski, Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Amicus Plato, sed magis amica veritas (Plato is my friend, but Truth is still a better friend of mine), they say Aristotle whispered when he explained the arguments with which he demolished the theories of his teacher, whose school, the Academy, had been Aristotle’s home for twenty years. I remember this well known phrase almost every time I read or hear some of the most common arguments ‘in favour’ of the humanities. We can to some extent understand that many of the people that work in some of those fields feel worried as the public and politicians’ interest in things like philosophy, history, linguistics or literature is constantly declining; or how education reforms are putting these subjects away; or how the voices of the intellectuals seem progressively less and less influential; or how general humanistic knowledge and the linguistic capabilities of graduates are becoming more and more meagre. To tell the truth, it’s not very clear to me if all these worries correspond to real tendencies, or to what extent are just one more example of the universal tendency in all human societies to see the past as more glorious than the present, something that, in this case, can be combined with the fact that our generation was the first one in history that experienced a massive, almost universal access to the non-elementary levels of learning. Lacking compelling data on these questions, the fact is that in ‘defending’ humanities we can find an excessive number of fallacies, often committed precisely by people that are assumed to be experts in protecting us from fallacious arguments. I will not make here an exhaustive analysis of these fallacies, but just signal a few of the ones I find more baffling. In the next paper, instead, I shall present what, from my point of view, are the best arguments to defend the humanities, their teaching and their presence within society. The sentences in bold type correspond to what I think are fallacies.

1. “A general humanistic education is a pillar of democracy”.

I fear that most of the great philosophers prior to 20th century would have been very surprised, if not astonished, by such an argument. Almost no one of them would have considered democracy (in our common sense of complete equality of rights, universal suffrage, competition of political parties, and so on) as anything remotely different from the worst of the ideas. Furthermore, through almost all history, humanistic education (which was a synonym of ‘education’ simpliciter) has rather been an instrument for the social differentiation of economic and political elites, hence, the exact opposite of a tool for emancipation. It’s funny to consider how history, philosophy, literature, etc., something that since Ancient Greece was seen as a gentlemen’s privilege and a guarantee that those gentlemen’s children would keep the same social privileges as their fathers, has become, in less than a couple of centuries, as a necessary mechanism for the working of democratic societies.

2. “Knowledge of the humanities is indispensable for our realisation as human beings”.

I can’t deny that enjoying literature, history or philosophy may be one of the greatest sources of pleasure and understanding we humans can experience. I can’t also disagree with the claim that this enjoyment requires in many cases a long and more or less painful training before a child can start to experience it. But I know a lot of people, including myself, consecrated almost full time to these subjects, and I can promise you that we are, on average, not even a little bit less foolish in our private or public lives than those individuals that have not been lucky enough to make of humanities the gist of their jobs. Actually, we are not happier than the rest of the people enjoying a social or economic level similar to ours. Furthermore, I don’t really know of many people for whom having got a little bit more of humanistic learning at school (say, a few hours more listening about Homer or Rousseau) would have meant escaping from a miserable life of alienation.

3. “The powerful want to eliminate humanistic learning because they want us less critical individuals, consumers and entrepreneurs instead of citizens; this is why they are trying to replace humanistic for more economicist subjects”.

Perhaps I’m wrong, but I would say that most of what one studies during primary and secondary school, and I would also say that a big part of what one studies in the university (at least in countries like Spain), are, in a wide sense, either humanities or science topics that are taught as mere ‘scientific culture’, or at least as ‘theoretical’ knowledge, and a very few things (if at all) that can be taken as ‘economicist’. Rather on the contrary, what we listen from more ‘neo-liberal’ voices criticising the current status of education is that it systematically fails at teaching the kind of ‘practical’ capabilities that private companies would like their future employees to have. I have spent five decades inside the education system and I have very rarely seen anything similar to ‘teaching how to make money’… not even to teaching how to spend it. Perhaps we would need a little bit more of that.

In particular, I want to mention that in Spain we have had in the secondary school, for not few decades, and in comparison with other countries, a far from small (yet pitifully declining) amount of subjects that in a sense can be classified as ‘philosophical’, and actually they were taught almost always by philosophy teachers. If I am not wrong, Spain is also one of the countries with a higher rate of philosophy graduates and students of philosophy in the university. If it were true that having a high number of hours devoted to these subjects in the school does really contribute to having a population composed of reflexive and critical citizens more than of passive consumers or greedy money makers… if that were true, I say, Spain should be the less consumeristic society in the planet, and our population should be crowding the bookshops and public libraries, something that I wouldn’t say it’s happening.

Perhaps the truth is that we have had a lot of time to teach our youngsters language, literature, history, philosophy, and the like, but we have done it so badly that we have only managed to bore them (or at least, most of them). And if this were true, this makes me suspect that the ‘solution to our problems’ perhaps is not just to add hours of humanities to the school curriculum.

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