Who Needs Humanities?

The Deeper, Long-term Effects of Education are Lost in Today’s Cost Accounting for Universities

Opinion | Steve Fuller | September 2008

Economist John Maynard Keynes was a strong believer in teaching humanities (Photo: Der Spiegel)

Nowadays, in country after country, policymakers have become obsessed with the need to strengthen science education. But what about the humanities – all those disciplines (literature, history, languages, and so forth) whose relevance to economic competitiveness is not so obvious?

We need the humanities only if we are committed to the idea of humanity. If the humanities have become obsolete, then it may be that humanity is losing its salience.

I do not mean that we are becoming "less human" in the sense of "inhumane." If anything, we live in a time when traditionally human-centered concerns like "rights" have been extended to animals, if not nature as a whole. Rather, the problem is whether there is anything distinctive about being human that makes special demands of higher education. I believe that the answer continues to be yes.

Today, it sounds old-fashioned to describe the university’s purpose as being to "cultivate" people, as if it were a glorified finishing school. However, once we set aside its elitist history, there remains a strong element of truth to this idea, especially when applied to the humanities. Although we now think of academic disciplines, including the humanities, as being "research-led," this understates the university’s historic role in converting the primate Homo sapiens into a creature whose interests, aspirations, and achievements extend beyond successful sexual reproduction.

What was originally called the "liberal arts" provided the skills necessary for this transformation. By submitting to a common regime of speaking, writing, reading, observing, and calculating, the "upright ape" acquired the capacity to reason in public. This enabled first him and then her to command authority regardless of birth, resulting in the forging of networks and even institutions whose benefits cut deeply across bloodlines. We too easily forget that our heterogeneous societies rely on at least a watered-down version of this training to maintain political and economic order.

The university began with the humanities at its heart, but today it is playing catch-up with the natural sciences. This is largely because the natural sciences have most closely imitated the productivity measures associated with industry. The result is a "bigger is better" mentality that stresses ever more publications, patents, and citations. Yet, this agenda tends to be pursued without much concern for how – or if – these measures feed into something of greater social, cultural, and even economic relevance.

The Science Citation Index, originally designed to help researchers discern aggregate trends in increasingly complex subject domains sciences, has helped measure productivity. But now these trends are routinely converted into norms against which the performance of particular universities, departments, and even individual researchers is judged. What is most easily measured has become confused with what is most worth measuring.

But, more profoundly, this entire line of thinking neglects the distinctly transformative capacity of the knowledge in which the humanities specializes. An adequate assessment of this capacity requires looking at its multiplier effects. As with John Maynard Keynes’s notion that returns on public investment must be measured as the long-term consequence of other investments that it stimulates across the economy and society, so, too, with the knowledge generated by the humanities.

This idea is lost in today’s cost accounting for universities, which treats what transpires between teacher and student in the classroom as akin to what happens between producer and consumer in the market. In both cases, it is assumed that the value of the exchanged good is decided shortly after its delivery according to how it satisfies an immediate need. Not surprisingly, students value their degree by the first job it gets them rather than the life it prepares them for over the next half-century.

Today, it is hard to believe that in the heyday of the welfare state, universities were both more elite and more publicly funded than they are today. Back then, it was assumed that the benefits of academic training accrued not only, or even primarily, to those who experienced it but also, and more importantly, to the rest of the population, whose lives were variously enriched by the application of the arts and sciences.

Of course, this enrichment included such practical benefits as medical breakthroughs and labor-saving technologies. But the enrichment provided by the humanities was no less enduring, though its subtler nature makes it harder to track. Nevertheless, to paraphrase Keynes, every time we turn on the radio or television, read a newspaper, pick up a novel, or watch a movie, we are in the thrall of one or more dead humanists who set the terms of reference through which we see the world.

In its long history as the premier form of academic knowledge, the humanities were frequently criticized for their subversive character. That some would now question whether the humanities have any impact at all merely reflects the crude and short-sighted way in which the value of academic knowledge is measured and judged today. Perhaps that befits creatures whose lives are "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short," to recall Thomas Hobbes’ description of the state of nature. But it does a grave injustice to those of us who still aspire to full-fledged humanity.


Steve Fuller is Prof. of Sociology at the University of Warwick, in the United Kingdom

Copyright: Project Syndicate / Institute 

for the Human Sciences, 2008


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