the purposes of the humanities

I just heard an anecdote: several candidates for president of a major university were asked about the purposes of the humanities. All but one talked in terms of “art appreciation.” As a result, the committee–which included scholars from the humanities–selected the one remaining candidate, who understood how to talk like a modern humanities professor.

This anecdote reminded me of a scientist whom I used to hear holding forth to his graduate students at a take-out restaurant in College Park. Once he advised them to take an art appreciation course to meet women. Apart from other problems with this advice, the University of Maryland does not offer art appreciation. It offers art history, a discipline that sees itself as just as rigorous as the natural sciences.

Within the humanities themselves, I think the prevailing view is almost the opposite of this scientist’s. Rather than teach “appreciation,” we teach critical distance. A major goal of a class in English or art history is to help students learn how cultural products are made and how they function so that the students shed their automatic reactions and assumptions. When we understand works of art and literature, sometimes we like them more, but sometimes less. The point of a humanities course is not to raise or lower approval, but to enhance critical understanding.

My own view is that critical distance is a moral stance, and often a good one; but it is only an example of a moral position. In general terms, the purpose of the humanities is ethical thought. What ethics demands is sometimes criticism, but sometimes it is tolerance, solidarity, or even appreciation. The sciences and social sciences provide information relevant to ethical choices, but they deal with “is,” not “ought.” Only the humanities address, in various ways, the questions of how one should live and how a society should be structured.

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