The Romantic Reply to the that Terrible Question: Valuing the Humanities

One option out of a wide array of graduate seminars to choose for this current Spring semester ranging from the theory heavy to the literature heavy, and usual contenders (i.e. my much beloved courses on Modernism and the 18th c. novel) stood out among the rest in sheer ambiguity: the public humanities. The seminar is an interdisciplinary course that includes graduate students from various departments. Unsure of what to expect on the syllabus I was delighted to find recognizable names with essays by Butler, Adorno, and the entirety of Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man. Assignments are largely open-ended in terms of content and rather task based. Tasks that challenge participants to consider the necessary skills and steps to bridging the humanities and public action.

For our second seminar meeting we discussed Helen Small’s recent publication, The Value of the Humanities, in which she outlines the most consistently cited reasons the humanities are necessary for not only the university, but public and personal life. Small resides as a scholar of post 1700s British literature and gender studies at Pembroke College, Oxford. In the book Small sets out to answer for herself, and to question readers to answer

the most dreadful of inquiries: Why study the humanities? That terrible question

, it lurks in various forms from fellowship applications to nagging family members at holiday parties, instances that pervade the everyday life of scholars of the humanities. Small begins with a rather strong, but uncomfortably truthful proposition: We need to stop running or generalizing answers to this question and determine our own understandings as to what the value of the humanities is within our work. Spoilers: I am not going to attempt to answer this question in a blog post or in my time as a first year graduate student. Rather I suggest to be consistently conscious of the question of value within our private, public, and scholarly spheres. Readers may want to resist fellow NASSR blogger Caroline Winter’s post from this past December that addresses similar issues, “We are here!” Interstellar Messages and Why the Humanities Matter

Small’s book serves as a malleable text that presents a historical overview of the five major arguments for the value of the humanities. Generally she cites the well-known arguments as follows:

1.) Improve systems of thought and evaluate epistemological methods and outcomes

2.) Articulate and evaluate the governing powers and social systems that structure everyday life

3.) Potentially improve quality of life and thus achieve a happier disposition

4.) The battle cry, “Democracy Needs Us!”

5.) Humanities for humanities sake

Instead of coming down hard on any of these argument Small’s study can be used as a resource for readers who wish to enter into the debate about the value of the humanities.

Shelley, A Defense of Poetry
P.B. Shelley, A Defense of Poetry. Sourced from the New York Public Library

Small moves through these arguments of various contemporary thinkers with consistent references to the roots of these thoughts within Kant, Coleridge, P.B. Shelley, and the Victorian school reform. That’s only naming a few names found in the index that seem apt for the study of Romanticism and the “crisis” of the humanities that warrants defense. Articulating any answer to the questions of value is hard, to put it bluntly, and it seems it always has been. See below P.B. Shelley’s draft of “A Defence of Poetry”, which shows even the most confident pronouncement replies to this question requires a few rough drafts and revisions.

As graduate students, and certainly anyone else working in humanities, it’s easy to forget the third argument Small presents—a study of the humanities promises happiness. It’s no doubt that experiences with music, art, literature, and various other mediums have cultivated passions within scholars who pursue the academic study of them. The hours of research, e-mails, proof-reading, literally digging through non electronic text archives, and the often less than stellar pay grade washes over these underlying passions so easy. In chapter three Small addresses humanities through John Stuart Mill’s take up of Wordsworth as the key influence for Mill’s argument that a study of the humanities, especially poetry, cultivates feeling necessary for reflective evaluation of our  situation and others. Mill suffered from depression as an effects of his “unsentimental education” experience without proper study of the humanities. Only through Wordsworth did he find the answer to happiness, on which he foregrounds utilitarian viewpoints on education practices (Small 12). Without digressing on Mill’s perspectives on liberal education I returned to Mill’s journal entry when he recounts the instance he re-found Wordsworth,

And I felt myself at once better and happier as I came under their influence…I needed to be made to feel that there was real, permanent happiness in tranquil contemplation. Wordsworth taught me this, not only without turning away from, but with a greatly increased interest in, the common feelings and common destiny of human beings.

We may laugh a bit at how quickly Mill’s state of distress dissipates upon reading a few lines of Wordsworth, but what I want to stress here is how the reading experience expands Mill’s worldly perspective and capacity for empathy to resist a wholly hedonistic value of the humanities. The “unsentimental education” Mill laments can be understood as an education that distances us from one another and the world. Most aptly through the forms of the humanities are the “common” passions able to be expressed and thus absorbed by readers. Though empathy does not always correlate to happiness it often creates the potential for clearer channels of communication between individuals, the precondition for peaceful and respectful co-existence.

One term that came up in the class discussion of Small’s book was poēisis, not only to refer to the act of creation, but also revelation. To reveal the “common” threads between us all, including Mill, Wordsworth, and all of us. Perhaps one of the best ways to defend the humanities is to engage in the products of the field to reveal their worth for ourselves. Wordsworth’s lines in “Resolution and Independence” chime in new tones when considering how a Romantic sensibility cultivates knowledge of personal and the public realms. The wandering speaker famously approaches the lone leech-gather in the woods to ask,

“How is it that you live/ And what is it that you do?”

A question we must never stop asking and trying to answer for ourselves.