Humanities: how not to defend them, and how to do it (2)

In the past entry I presented a criticism to a few common arguments (or rather, topics) that we often find ‘in defence’ of the humanities. Those arguments were problematic not only because their fallacious nature, but because they only serve to add confidence to the ones already persuaded, but they give to the rest of the people the feeling that, if the best arguments one can offer are so bad, it must be because the real reasons behind that argumentation is just the defence of certain privileges. Now it’s time to go into some more positive ideas about why and how it is reasonable to defend a relevant presence of the humanities within general education. Before starting, it will be useful to determine what is what is understood as ‘defending the humanities’, what can mean a lot of different things. In particular, my goal is to argue that it is important that a high proportion of citizens reach a wide, and not merely superficial knowledge of those subjects traditionally included within the humanities. Let’s call this the ‘final goal’. If this goal is accepted, the next step in the argument is to conclude that the best thing to achieve that goal is to offer in all the education levels (and especially at the non-university ones) a wide offer of teaching in those areas, often as compulsory subjects.

Once we got clear that what we are arguing is not other senses in which society should support humanities, but more precisely that it should do it (amongst other things) by hiring a lot of teachers in language, literature, history, philosophy, and the like, the point is to find reasonable arguments that support that conclusion. Take into account that doing this has an enormous economic costs for the society: the money spend in those teachers’ salaries could be spend in other things, and the time and effort children and youngsters spend in studying those fields could be spend in other activities. So, why is it reasonable to spend those resources in that way?

It should be obvious that a social reality as the education system cannot be reduced to just one ‘function’: it fulfils, instead, a number, or a lot of goals, and so it is absurd to start by claiming something like “education should not create workers, but citizens”, because education should create lots of things. We aspire to a universal and high quality education system because of plenty of different reasons, all of them reasonable: for example, because we want citizens capable of defending their rights and assuming their responsibilities; but also because we want that reaching a social position or another does not depend on your family wealth; and also because we want that there are enough people capable of performing all the jobs a complex society needs; and also because we want our children reach the capabilities that allow them to have a rich and autonomous life; and also because we want they are capable of enjoying culture; and also because we think it is healthy for their development to spend a lot of time with children of their age, within a context in which they are relatively well protected (this is specially important if in many houses there are not adults for most of the day time). How important each of these goals are does not depend on theoretical, scientific calculations, but is something up to each individual and family to decide, and it is not democratic to try to impose your preferences just because you think they are well supported by your own ideology. What we want is, rather, an education system efficient enough to fulfil to a high degree all these goals.

Learning humanities contributes in very different degrees to each of these goals. For some of them, they are almost irrelevant. For others, are crucial. And if we not only consider what teachers (try to) teach, but what students (really) learn, the contribution is perhaps more dubious in many cases. The question, hence, is, taking this into account, why is it important to defend that there are a substantial presence of humanities within all education levels. It is not to defend democracy, or to warrant the personal realisation of citizens, or to protect us from ‘economicism’. I think there is a much better reason, one so simple and direct that probably there would not be the need of any further reason (though I shall give more): humanities belong into the collective heritage and cultural wealth of our societies, and all citizens have the right of accessing in equal conditions to the enjoyment of that wealth, no matter what benefits its enjoying may provide. It is to some extent pointless to discuss what are humanities good for: the question is that, if they are good for anything, it should not be the privileged or the wealthy the only ones capable of seizing those benefits. This means that the relation between humanities and democracy is just the opposite to the one I criticized in the previous entry: we don’t need humanities so that democracy works well; instead, we need democracy so that everybody can benefit from the possible advantages that a humanistic education may provide.

A second, more substantial reason to defend the teaching of humanities is that these contribute to widen and enrich the student’s ‘world’, i.e., the surrounding realities they are conscious of, their ‘affordances’. Humanistic knowledge helps us to ‘navigate’ a wider and richer vital space; it helps us to live in a bigger ‘space of possibilities’, and hence, it enlarges our freedom. Those of us whose job is to teach humanities cannot do anything more useful than help students learn to use a well-stocked ‘conceptual toolbox’ (something that is also an essential goal of other disciplines, of course). This is good both for each individual citizen, allowing her to attain a more varied set of life projects (though without guaranteeing that she will profit intelligently from them), and collectively, providing us with a society that is capable of doing more and better things.

A third, more pragmatic argument to justify the existence of a numerous body of humanities teachers and professors is because they contribute to the presence of a critical mass of consumers, and often of producers, of ‘cultural goods’ (books, music, art, research…), without which it would be very probable that many of these goods were not produced at all, and hence, not enjoyed by other citizens.

Lastly, I think the best way of ‘defending humanities’ would be that each and every person that devotes her life to them contributes to increasing the people’s love to our disciplines, or at least, the pleasure they get from them. In particular, perhaps humanities teachers would not set as their main goal that their students learn such and such, but just that they start to love a little bit of literature, of history, of philosophy, of art, and so on. It is absurd to defend the existence of humanities in the schools on the basis of how happy would students be if they had a deep knowledge about Virgil or Schopenhauer, since the sad truth is that most students will just have no idea about who those men were and what they did. Perhaps it is more important to reflect on what could we do in order to instil in our students the desire of learning about these of other authors. If we succeeded in that goal, it wouldn’t matter much if the knowledge citizens get comes from our own lectures or is gained later, during their adult lives. And of course, perhaps it would not even be good for the working of society in general that everybody had a strong predilection for humanities. Perhaps the truth is that we are not that important. What is important is that we live in a society that supports and values culture, and that allows that everybody can access the jobs related to culture and the enjoyment that culture produces, but not that everybody has the obligation of loving it. For who loves what is compulsory?

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