If you are one of those people who, in the wake of a transatlantic agenda to delegitimize the academic profession and the teaching and practice of “useless” subjects that profession enshrines, have struggled to find the words to suggest that maybe such delegitimization might not be such a good idea after all, Nicholas Dames’ article “Why Bother?” in the latest issue of n+1 is required reading. Reviewing three of the most eloquent and popular recent defenses of “useless” subjects and the academic profession—Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University, and Terry Castle’s The Professor and Other Writings—Dames ends with this moving conclusion drawn from his words of praise for Castle’s An Academic’s Progress of a memoir:
Richard Rorty once argued that Western culture needs the novel, in order to force us to imagine lives and destinies different from our own. Perhaps the humanities, in their current plight, need to be novelistic again. Not necessarily in their fictional mode, such as the moribund campus novel genre with its essentially demystifying comedy, but the novelistic ability to marshal narratives and details that give us back some sense of why the humanities exist for individuals — how, to put it bluntly, they still rescue lives. One doesn’t enter the academy to become a disillusioned professional (although that will happen along the way). One doesn’t enter it to equip businesses with flexible analytic intellects (although that will also happen). One enters it, shamefacedly and unhappily, perhaps, but enters it nonetheless, in order to devote oneself to something greater than personal resentments — to salvational or transformational modes of thought. Because, put another way, all the grievances that take aim at higher education express real suffering, and that suffering has causes and modes of expression older than most sufferers usually know. The humanities should be, if not their solace, then their weapons of choice. Prig and cynic and naïf she may be, but the newly minted academic knows this — after all, she most likely came from their midst — and one good way of explaining as much is to explain how that knowledge feels. Without such explanations, which might soften resentment into curiosity or sympathy, there may soon be very little left to be embarrassed about.
I read this article—and am writing this post—from a crowded English train, surrounded by the remains of an issue of the Guardian (crossword puzzle completed), a train-station takeaway americano, and a book, stickered with the seal of the Oxford History Faculty Library, that I should really be reading for research purposes. Tony Judt’s words on the decline and fall of the post-privatization British rail system are ringing in my mind as I contemplate the forlorn-looking and extortionately-priced offerings of the refreshments trolley. Dressed in corduroy and herringbone, pecking away at my MacBook, my ticket for Oxford in my jacket pocket, I am nothing if not the intended audience for Dames’ slightly unorthodox answer to the “How do we defend humanists and the humanities in these strange days of declining-and-falling, neoliberal cost-cutting?” And so perhaps this is why I find his the most persuasive gesture towards an answer I have come across in many months, and the closest to articulating my own thoughts on the subject. Dames’ answer to “Why Bother?” is neither strictly utilitarian nor merely tautological. It rests on an understanding of what knowledge and intellectual curiosity are and can do, and why people undertake lives of the mind, that I share and believe with an almost religious fervor. And it comes on the heels of a compelling and compassionate review of a memoir that, as I noted when I read it, comes closer than any campus novel to mirroring my own experience of the young intellectual’s bildung—priggishness, cynicism, naïveté and all.
But what sits uncomfortably about Dames’ answer is that it could not be more ideologically opposed to an argument like Nussbaum’s, defending the humanities for the sake of the good they can bring to society at large. As Nussbaum defines it, this good is tangible, almost quantifiable, and the problem therefore (as those more qualified than I to dispute claims made by Martha Nussbaum have noted) is that her argument doesn’t counter the assumption that value must be tangible, discernible, measurable, or that it can consist (even in measurable terms) of intellectual and spiritual fulfillment. But it is a good that is general, that speaks to the need for the humanities of those outside the university walls as well as in. It explains why those doing the defunding and the devaluing need those whom they are trying to devalue and to defund, and why humanities education and research can be beneficial to those who don’t stay in the academy all their lives. Dames, by contrast, seems rather not to get the joke of Castle’s elegant pastiche of the eighteenth-century novels she studies. It seems as if he invests the role of the plucky young protagonist whose life is changed by books and whose angst is managed by the order of an academic career with heroic importance—and one has to wonder, as it seems one always does, if the psychological satisfaction of those who make lives in the academy is really worth so much as to be the backbone of a humanities-justification argument. One wants to believe that the professor, or even the cynical graduate student, has as much right to love what she does as the member of a state legislature voting for or against her continued employment, and one knows from lived experience that only a teacher who believes in the goodness, and the changing power, of what she teaches is capable of passing that love onto her students. I for one would like to be able to say that Dames resolves the question that still keeps me awake at night: whether it is not just purely selfish to follow a calling which gives me so much pleasure, when I am plainly only one of a few who will benefit from my putative academic career.
We can resolve this dilemma—at least temporarily—but only if we make recourse once again to our battered “for its own sake” tautology. The thing is that I don’t believe in dismissing out of hand any ideas, expressed in expressive language, that I find moving enough to peck out a couple thousand words about on the train. And so I feel inclined to say that Dames’ ideas are valuable to this ongoing conversation—that they humanize the humanists. But the conversation can’t stop with a validation of the motives and the psychological struggles of the privileged few. It needs to find language with which to relate the cosmology of those who think for a living, and those who teach as a vocation, to anti-profit-motive values that involve those in the real world as well.
I’d posit that the humanities offer not just the Terry Castles of this world, but everyone, the chance to decide for themselves what it means to live a good life, and to act in accordance with the principles they have devised. The humanities offer all of us alternative epistemological paradigms, that don’t require an output or an end or a profit. They offer doubt, but they also offer possibility. What they don’t offer is empiricism, equations, or the assumption that there are answers. But for all that, they are no less admitting of possibilities—for a good humanist will recognize the necessity of scientific methods to fill in the gaps in her worldview. The humanities allow us to make ourselves, and our world, as we would have them be. And they do, in the end, promise a place for the seekers after knowledge and the people whose calling is to expand those possibilities of thought and action still further.
Making the case for the humanities and those who teach them today involves preaching the value not just of those apparently special individuals for whom humanistic inquiry lies at the root of existence, but also of those for whom it plays any part, however small. Those who seek to impart their evangelical message to those in the halls of power can couch their requests in the rhetoric of outcomes and utility, or they can do what primary-school teachers—and parents—are doing right now all over the world, and assign their students Harry Potter in an effort to encourage them to read and to recognize not just the benefits but also the joy of reading. They can start small, they can meet their students (first-graders and members of Congress alike) where they are, and then—oh then!—guide them one step forward towards realizing that they had the right answers, the reading-comprehension but also the literary-critical, key inside them all along. Infinite patience and infinite kindness are as impossible things for us to ask of the world’s intellectuals public and private as they are of ourselves (or of our children’s first-grade teachers), but we can certainly start small—with the conviction that what we do, as Dames argues, matters—and from there become slowly and surely better.