Manifesto for the Humanities

A Manifesto for the Humanities
by William L. Scurrah, M.A., M.F.A.

Much has been said lately about the decline of the humanities. College students are avoiding majoring in the humanities in favor of science, technology, engineering, math (the so-called STEM majors), and business, with an eye to the personal bottom line: how available are jobs and how much money can they make. This shift is being actively encouraged not only by private enterprise and the supposed realities of the economy but by federal and state governments, which see these majors as the remedy to American decline. I suspect many politicians also see them as a way to reduce government spending, especially on what can generally be called social services. A polite way of saying get those lazy drones off their rears and into the corporate cubicles.

The attack on the humanities requires justification, which appears to be increasingly found in science, particularly neuroscience and evolutionary genetics, which some, especially those “new atheists” who clamor for the demise of religion, have recruited to do the dirty work of undermining the humanities by reducing them to nothing more than the expression of predetermined neuronal firings in mapped regions of the brain and/or adaptations designed to advance reproductive survival. So powerful, or at least popular, is this view that even professors of literature have succumbed to the temptation to justify, say, the novels of Jane Austen on Darwinian grounds. The stupidity of such attempts reflects the desperation that inspires them.

A more traditional yet equally feeble attempt to justify the humanities is to point out the particular skill-sets that they encourage: clear writing, critical thinking, and better citizenship. But to appeal to the skill-sets conveyed by the study of, say, Aristotle merely concedes the ground to the opposition, for whom skill-sets are ranked according to the qualities desired in employees, and as it happens, the skill sets conveyed by the teaching of the humanities are not in fact as much in demand by corporations as proponents imagine. And they may actually be threatening to politicians of certain stripes. The humanities cannot win by fighting according to the rules of war dictated by the opposition.

The heavy artillery of the opposition, the sciences, particularly neuroscience and evolutionary genetics, claim the status of theories of everything when it comes to explaining motives and behavior, consciousness and free will, morality and knowledge. But in fact these sciences can only describe the species Homo sapiens, and they not only deny that we are a little lower than the angels, they assert that we are nothing more than babbling naked apes. It is no wonder, then, that these sciences are popularly deployed to justify unrestrained capitalism; competition is the name of the game in both evolution and economics. Sensitive souls do not make good consumers or CEO’s.

What these sciences cannot do, and what the humanities—poetry, religion, philosophy, all the various arts—can do is articulate the experience of being human. The humanities not only express but organize and make sense of experience by and for the human subject—not the breathing, breeding, grasping specimen of Homo sapiens or Homo economicus, but the thinking, feeling, wondering subject, the he or she, the “I” of that very consciousness which the technocratic establishment, whether corporate, political, or academic, wishes to eliminate, or at least reduce to the status of an illusion. Science misunderstood reduces subjects to objective data points on a spreadsheet; art and poetry and the other branches of the humanities can make nothing of data, because the subject is its own reference point, its own center of experience, which can be expressed only symbolically. Thus, no amount of fMRI scans can determine what I think of the novels of Janet Frame or Herman Melville, or why I appreciate Richard Wilbur’s poem “Mayflies” but am left cold by the sonnets of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Even if there is a “God spot” or module for religious belief (which there isn’t), that tells us nothing about the religious experience of individual human beings as they encounter the manifest mysteries of their own subjective existence.

Thus it is that, even if much of what the neuroscientists and geneticists claim about us (and themselves) is objectively true, it all is irrelevant to the humanities, for regardless of the “scientific” theories about what makes Homo sapiens tick, despite the attempted depredations of the “new atheists,” people must above all live as human beings, and that means poetry, philosophy, religion, novels and plays, music and art, created and experienced as life, not as neurons. Whatever the mind might be, soul or spirit or brain, it nevertheless is the mind, and to reach its fullest development it must be nourished by that which is most natural to it. To deny such nourishment, to discourage students from majoring in the humanities or to strip the curriculum of humanities requirements in the name of profitability and efficiency, is to deny the very idea of the human.

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