Saving Souls; or, In Which We Tie Some Threads Together in Attempting a New Justification of the Humanities

From Mary Beard’s blog this week came the disturbing news that Royal Holloway, part of the University of London, is shutting down its Classics and Philosophy department: moving the faculty positions it can’t eliminate to other departments, like History and Politics, and reducing the total number of student places available to study any of these subjects. The news was subsequently confirmed by Brian Leiter, who posted on his blog a further chilling enumeration of the changes underway, along with contact information for the Classics and Philosophy department, who are collecting letters of support to submit to the RH administration. If I have any leverage at all upon my blog audience, I think now is probably a good time to cash it in: I urge you, especially if you are a classicist, a philosopher, or an academic in any field, to write in support of the RH department and of the study of classics and philosophy at the undergraduate and the research levels alike.

But before you rush off to your email account, I want to put forth an idea for how I, who am an undergraduate with little academic credibility, might go about constructing such an argument. I have been talking seriously online and in real life for almost a year now about the need to find new arguments to justify the academic humanities that are neither instrumentalist or utilitarian (e.g. the Martha Nussbaum argument that studying the humanities makes us better citizens) nor are at risk of tautology (studying the humanities is a good in itself. Why? Because it is a good in itself…). But now, confronting the Royal Holloway issue after some time away from the question, I have a new proposition to make, that is particularly relevant to undergraduate-teaching departments and that is perhaps less instrumental than some arguments I’ve heard and made before.

The humanities save lives.

When I was a kid, and particularly when I was a teenager, I often felt that I had no real support outside my home. Yes, it was, and is, fantastic to have parents who have always loved me unconditionally, who have with boundless reserves of patience indulged my eccentricities, who have colluded with me in my geekiness, who I have always striven to please, and who have always been pleased—whether my “obsession” of the moment was the Disney movie Aladdin or the intellectual history of male homosexuality. I know how lucky I am to have had such a supportive family life. But I also know all too well what it is like to feel as if that family life counts for nothing the instant I’d walk out the front door. At school, where I was sometimes bullied and rarely had friends, I felt that no one understood me; I cannot remember a time in my childhood or adolescence in which I did not feel as if being authentically myself did not come with some consequences. Yes, I had some fantastic teachers who saw a kindred spirit—or maybe just a lost soul—and reached out. But I knew what I was doing when I ate lunch every day in their classrooms and lingered to talk with them after school. I knew that it meant I was alone, just as I knew it when I once had a birthday party and not one of my guests came.

Those years of angst could have destroyed me. But they didn’t, because I had the humanities. Through literature and music in particular (I only later learned to care profoundly for visual art), I learned how to think and how to feel. When I was six and played alone on the playground, I talked to the mice from Redwall; when I was eighteen and hid behind the tennis courts or in a teacher’s classroom at lunchtime, I memorized Allen Ginsberg’s poems. When I was playing Tchaikovsky with my orchestra, it didn’t matter that only a couple people out of seventy-five or so would deign to speak to me. While other teenagers went to parties, I stayed up late in a dark bedroom watching French films and making older friends in other countries online who challenged my views about religion, politics, ethics, and the way the world works (thank you, h2g2!). Even before I knew how to read in an academic sense, I found myself in texts, in history, in other worlds. And I survived. Just.

When I came to university three years ago, everything changed. The first thing I was assigned to read in a university class was the first chapter of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. I read it on the train on my first trip to explore New York City, and though I was terrified by it I didn’t let it stop me. I didn’t let overambitious attempts to attend senior-faculty-level conferences in literary theory, or prep-school-educated peers, stop me. I read the great classics of the English literary tradition (and made some cautious forays into the French), the stalwarts of literary and cultural theory, my first primary sources, the great works in my own discipline. I slowly but surely graduated from content assessments and literature reviews to doing research of my own. And on my own time, I visited art galleries and attended concerts, I improved my foreign language skills, I started to teach myself the gay canon, and then years passed and I moved fearlessly across the ocean.

That world (that is, that one outside my home) where reading of all kinds is valued didn’t change everything immediately. But it was one time last October, as I sat in the Princeton history department meeting with the professor who was shortly going to become my advisor, that I suddenly realized there was a deafening silence: the voices in my head that had for as long as I can remember been telling me that I was worthless, that my work was worthless, that I would never be good enough, that I didn’t matter had all stopped. I couldn’t remember when, but in that moment I definitely couldn’t hear them anymore. And since then I have continued to devour books, and thrown myself headlong into this Symonds project. And I’m not just talking to Symonds anymore: I have built up friendships in cities on both sides of the Atlantic, the academic’s social network that keeps me sane even when I’m traveling for months on end, and emailing or texting someone to ask if they want to have coffee is no longer the scariest action I can contemplate. I have friends who I can talk honestly to, who invite me to their birthday parties and will come to mine, who say that they will miss me when I move on to my next posting. I am practiced at the art of packing a suitcase full of casual collared shirts, jeans, and blazers; a gym bag full of books; and a backpack with an Apple computer, and setting off on adventures. And I read Henry James on the train, and when I tell my friends that I am learning ancient Greek, I am told that is a sensible thing to do.

I am a happy and a sane and a self-valuing adult. What did it was books, music, and art, good things and beautiful things, and an academic world that values those things. Through my reading and my coursework and my adventures, I have learned not only how to survive, but also how to flourish, how to keep bettering myself, and how to love. This is what the study of the humanities can do for lonely lost children who are certain they are the only ones in the world who feel and perceive the way they do, who are so weighed down by the prospect of getting on in the world that it turns inward into self-loathing that eats away at the soul. And yes, it is true that History and Politics and English Literature and Modern Languages and Art and Music can teach us some of the work of self-bettering. But if I really wanted to know how to do the work of human flourishing, I think I might look to Classics and Philosophy, wouldn’t you? And I don’t mean just for Plato: sometimes, you can only be cured of your self-loathing when you realize that there are whole departments devoted to the study of beautiful languages no one speaks anymore. Getting credit for engaging with esoterica matters.

And so when we think about cost-cutting measures that involve reducing the opportunities for young people to study the humanities in all their facets, we need to think about the implications for those lonely souls looking everywhere for something that they will perceive as giving their lives value—indeed, as making their lives better. (I am reminded of the “It Gets Better” video recently recorded by members of the U.S. Senate, which emphasizes that we all have a duty to help make it better for the young people it is in our power to reach.) I can speak only for myself, but I know that while reading has always helped me to survive, it is the academic humanities that have helped me to flourish—and I don’t know where I would be intellectually or emotionally without the disciplines of classics and philosophy, and my family, friends, and colleagues whose life’s work is in either field.

The conclusion to all this is that today was the first official day of my six-week-long Symonds research trip, and I spent it in the British Library, that glorious temple to knowledge of all kinds, with some notebooks kept by Symonds circa 1870-1876, when he was writing a book about Greek literature and lecturing about it to high-school students and women’s groups, in addition to doing some reviewing/lit crit for the London literary press. Hovering just inarticulated throughout these notes is the pregnant question of homoeroticism, whether in a coy reference to “proportion” and “size” in Praxiteles’ sculpture, in Symonds’ frustrated attempts to properly articulate what it is that draws him to Pindar, or in not-infrequent references to Walt Whitman—all themes that would eventually coalesce into the ideas about homosexual identity that Symonds would slowly start to put forth. Symonds is a man who found himself in reading, in the classics, in a philosophy that called for moderation and self-improvement and belief in Better. So have I found myself in Symonds—and so did I find myself spending much of the day today in the British Library wishing that I knew enough Greek to make sense of his notes on Pindar, which included passage after passage of quotation, too much to contemplate copying down for later struggle. Here is where it suddenly begins to matter urgently to learn a language, to learn a canon, to learn sets of texts and ways of reading and ways of thinking simply because people before us have done so. It matters for scholarship—and it matters, at least for some people, for getting on in the world, for self-discovery, for human flourishing.

And so don’t be the one to deny this to those people who need it, who live by it and for it. And especially not if you are in the business of helping children to become adults. I know that financial times are tough, and that universities have been pushed by necessity into a preoccupation with saving money, but they, and those who live and work in them, must never forget that they also have a vocation to save young people’s hearts, minds, and lives.

4 thoughts on “Saving Souls; or, In Which We Tie Some Threads Together in Attempting a New Justification of the Humanities

  1. Dear Emily Rutherford,

    I’m not totally sure I buy this argument more than the other ones out there. It’s true that the humanities save *some* lives (especially yours, which is continually a source of inspiration to me!). But if we start thinking about it from this angle, it has the potential to turn into an arithmetic problem. Because if the humanities are worth saving because they save lives, then why not prioritize disciplines that save even more lives? If we’re trying to quantify things, a solid education in math or the sciences probably saves a lot more lives. (And then there’s the question of what counts as a life saved: a sense of self? a sense of purpose? more happiness? financial or job security? a stable career?)

    On the other hand, the humanities do help create and give meaning to bits and pieces of lots and lots of people’s lives. The philosophy department at RH might serve very, very few people directly, but its existence is arguably still valuable to the rest of us, probably in ways we can’t even think of. That’s harder to defend, but still worthwhile.


  2. This is somewhat along the lines of Emily’s comment above, but why isn’t this another version of the instrumentalist/utilitarian argument in favor of the humanities?

  3. Thanks, you guys. This is really helpful feedback. I agree that this is essentially still a utilitarian argument–my hope was that by raising the stakes, or changing the rules, it could become *less* utilitarian, and therefore perhaps stick a little better. I was talking with a certain thesis advisor today about how the the-humanities-make-us-better-citizens-or-better-empathizers arguments just aren’t sticking in the public sphere, and so we need to get better at explaining what is just so important about this method of scholarship. What I posted is just an essay in the truest sense–I’m not convinced it’s The Way, but I wanted to try the argument out. It sounds like it could do with some revision, but I think it’s one that’s worth refining.

    Emily Sung, I’ll add that something that’s important to me about discussions of life and death is that to me all lives are worth saving and worth working to save. I would hate to prioritize disciplines, and I’m also a utopianist who doesn’t like to have to think that there might not be enough money to go round, though undoubtedly this is often true. I guess I’d say, think about cutting the free food budget (though granted, British universities tend not to fall prey to the excesses in this regard that American ones do) before you cut academic departments that give meaning to students’ and scholars’ lives, because these departments *do* do that just like other ones do. And absolutely absolutely absolutely in regard to your last paragraph–to paraphrase Middlemarch: “But the effect of [the RH classics and philosophy department] on those around [it] was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts….”

    (cross-posted to FB because people also commented there)

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