A response to a successful industrialist’s lecture on the humanities

Recently our university hosted a prominent member of the Chicago business community whose interest in the humanities has led him to philanthropic giving to our institution. It has also put him in posts of high esteem on national boards and committees designed to discuss how to make the humanities more prominent in our current STEM-heavy media climate and economy.

This man is a friend of the humanities, no doubt, in deed and word. He gave a nice (and concise–I always appreciate that) lecture about first, the humanities’ importance to society on a qualitative level and second, how to find more funding for Humanists to do their important work. His argument was that the humanities, unlike other fields with a clear economic payoff, are critical to a civilized and democratic society because these fields give us tools and skills to keep our democracy functioning, to help us reason beyond economics, and to understand how to value more than the bottom line. The humanities, he felt (and I tend to agree), have value and benefit that are rendered obscure by the short-term quantitative means that we use to value products in our free-market, consumer economy. This intangible value is actually their highest virtue, and the reason we can derive a more sophisticated, longer-term type of wisdom from studying them.

Unfortunately, with the dollar being the measure of most things, and the humanities requiring money to exist and thrive, he pointed out that we are in a sticky situation. Universities, both private and public, are loathe to invest money in fields that do not offer a clear financial return–like bringing in large grants, or attracting lots of students willing to take out loans for high tuition because they feel their degree will be useful in getting a high-paying job after graduation. (And these students, if they make their fortunes, go on to become donors to the universities down the line, like the successful businessman giving this speech.)

His conclusion was that the humanities need to come out swinging, and show their worth to society more forcefully, by playing on the field set out by our free market economy. He noted that another important businessman–Bill Gates–has often remarked something to the effect that it is immoral to fund frivolities like the humanities when so many people around the globe are starving or dying of preventable diseases. We have to fix those problems first, Gates seems to think. Our speaker let that hang in the air, inviting us to consider that proposition and draw our own conclusions. (Some of my students who were in attendance at the talk, most of whom study engineering, sided firmly with Mr. Gates. Others, however, did not.)

In line with Mr. Gates, our speaker was not in favor of further government funding for the humanities. This funding ultimately comes from average citizens like you and me who value the humanities’ role in our personal and collective social experiences. Even though he argued that the humanities were critical to a functioning democracy, he argued that our government had more important, and more relevant things to fund. Instead, he hoped the humanities could show their usefulness in the marketplace–and to our government and other civic institutions– with clearer money-making and direct problem-solving applications. If we humanists could show our worth by the standards of *other* fields, then in so doing, we would not have to rely on what he considered government “handouts” and could attract funding from private donors–the ultra-wealthy who work and spend on a level completely alien to most of us.

I found these comments to be quite a paradox: if what makes the humanities special (and useful to our society) is their intangible value–their very ability to function on a higher, or at least different, plane of valuation and logic than most other fields that are defined according to capitalist market practices–then wouldn’t asking the humanities to prove its worth in the same way as these fields reduce its inherent utility? If I, as a humanist, need to seek funding by focusing on short-term utility and on economic gain, then the projects I can propose for funding–the ones that I would stand a chance of convincing people to fund according to these standards–would be every bit as short-term, myopic, and narrow as other fields that define themselves by short-term utility and not by a broader and a longer-term view of value and what is good for our society as a whole.

It struck me in listening to this talk (and I am sure I am not the first one to use this metaphor) that the humanities are infrastructure. Just like the bridges and highways that are the infrastructure of our physical world, the humanities are the infrastructure of our social world–the things we take for granted that allow our society to run. These include the ability to use and continually refine things like critical reading and listening skills that ensure we can separate truth from fiction and understand the impact of discourse on shaping the materiality of our world (wars are always started, and ended, with words).  Things like high-level abstract communication concepts, such as language and rhetoric (the codes that run the machines on which you are reading this, and the protocols that allow those machines to effortlessly communicate, owe their origins to this–and would not exist without engineers who have been trained to a high level in humanistic language and communication skills).  Things like qualitative reasoning that allow us to learn lessons from the past and deploy historical knowledge to solve complex social and economic problems today (the architects of the financial crisis of 2008-2009 lacked these). And, things like art and architecture that feed our souls, and meet our spiritual needs (if you’ve ever walked into a museum or cathedral or read a novel on dark day when life doesn’t seem worth much, and had your spirits lifted, you know what I mean).

Unfortunately, most good infrastructure functions  in a way that allows us to take it for granted. We never really “see” it until it is gone–or until something goes horribly wrong–and we perceive its absence. Next week I will go to the University of Minnesota to do research in Charles Babbage Institute’s archives. The last time I was there, I was unable to access campus directly because a major thoroughfare,  the I-35 bridge, had collapsed due to lack of maintenance. It lay in a twisted mangle below the airspace it once spanned. I hope we do not need to get to that point with the humanities–our social infrastructure–before we take notice of their importance, before we accept the role that our government, not the free market and not private donors, needs to play in regulating and maintaining that infrastructure for us, with our democratic assent and our support in the form of taxes paid for the greater good of a livable, functioning society.

On a more personal note, I’d like to point out how the humanities is transformative: it does much more than give birth to just more of the same. The Humanities are the original “thinking outside the box.” My grandmother grew up in a poor, mountainous region of a country that had been ravaged by the aftershocks of European imperialism and European wars. Growing up in the shadow of WWI, in a French protectorate, she was a subsistence farmer from the time she was old enough to work. She went to school for only a few years. She learned written French there, in addition to her native, spoken Arabic. She never forgot that small spell of education, especially the languages. She loved that brief encounter with the humanities. Despite its brevity, that education expanded to fill her mind and her life in a way that the day-to-day work of staying alive never could.

When she was 21, she had the opportunity to emigrate to the U.S. with the help of her local church. Once here, she worked in a textile mill while teaching herself to speak a third language and learning how to read and write in English. She hungered for more education but could not have it. So when she married and had five children, three of them girls, she insisted they all have the education she could never get. And this meant fighting, cajoling, and pleading with her husband that they all have the same opportunity to go to college–even the girls–which, in the 1950s and 1960s was not the cultural standard here in the U.S. Her husband was “traditional” and thought it was “useless” to send his daughters to college, but somehow my grandmother prevailed. Her three daughters went on to become a nuclear physicist, an accountant, and a computer programmer. Her two sons became a college math professor and a high school math teacher. The study of the humanities, even in a small taste, gives birth to much more than itself.

I benefited from the legacy she left behind, and the value she placed on education for more than simply keeping one fed, housed, and paid. We average citizens, people like you, me, and her, are the way forward for the humanities: if we value them, we can fund them, and tell our leaders to do the same. We do not need to redefine the humanities to depend on the largesse to people who want the humanities to become something other than what they are in order to “prove” their utility.

People who have very little of a good thing often recognize the importance of that thing in their lives much more than the rest of us, with our relative plenty, do. For my grandmother, and many like her, humanistic education was a saving grace. The economic opportunities she fled her country to find in the U.S. were a means to that end, not an end in themselves. Even in her poverty and want as a child, she would not have wished to trade physical security for a life impoverished of language, art, and history. Had the starvation of her mind matched the starvation of her body, I have no doubt that she would not have made it to the U.S., and I would not be here to pursue an uneconomic–but not unproductive–endeavor that feeds the minds of many others. For that, I am very thankful for the humanities just as they are.


  1. Claire_M

    But only sciences have the answer. To everything. Or at least that is what seems to be being pushed at the moment. There is science and there is ignorance, and any other tools for considering the world must be bunk.

  2. Doug Hill

    Thanks for this essay. I agree with you (if I read you correctly) that the businessman’s suggestion that the humanities justify themselves by proving their worth in the marketplace is a paradox, and one that is in my opinion self-defeating. “The Heart of the Matter,” the defense of the humanities recently put forward by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, takes the same tack. I like your approach, which is (again, if I read you correctly) to unapologetically state the values the humanities offer on their own terms, and let the chips fall where they may. I’ve recently written an essay entitled “In Praise of the Counterpunchers,” that addresses these issues. It’s here:

    • Marie Hicks

      Thanks for the link; I will be interested to read it. Yes–this businessman actually sat on the committee that wrote “The Heart of the Matter,” so you’ve astutely inferred exactly where he’s coming from on this issue. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Justine

    I think this article nails it in a very efficient way. I would like French speakers to be able to read its content as the debate is pretty much the same in French and Belgian academia. Would you give me the authorisation to translate it to French on my blog? (see above)

    • Marie Hicks

      Hi Justine–Yes, definitely. I’m quite flattered and appreciative that you would be willing to do that. Could you put a link back to my website in your translation post? When it goes up, let me know and I will update my post to include a link to your post. Thanks for getting in touch!

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