Wednesday 23 September 2009

The humanities vs. mathandscience

The humanities feel embattled, the world they were designed for swept away while other subjects - especially 'mathandscience' - expand at a phenomenal rate. They resemble a little 19th century house on a 21st century street with immense skyscrapers looming ever higher around and over them. Broadly speaking they have responded by turning outwards or retreating inwards.

The first approach orients the humanities to the new world, its interests and values. Successful examples include Richard Florida's work on urban development and the 'creative class', or Richard Lanham's excellent 'Economics of Attention' which seek to demonstrate the unique value of what the humanities do. They make an effort to translate aspects of the humanities into the new language of 'cost-benefit analysis', but only as a hook. Once the reader agrees for example that the critical aesthetic judgement cultivated by the humanities involves the very toggling between general concepts and particular cases that is an incredibly useful skill for the efficiency of the modern economy, one is drawn to conclude that the humanities deserve an important, perhaps essential, place of their own amongst the skyscrapers.

The second approach is much more defensive. The proponents, including for example Martha Nussbaum and Mark Slouka, launch straightforward attacks on 'mathandscience' and argue that the world should go back to the way it was i.e. with humanities at the pinnacle of the establishment and science smaller and humbler. This approach views attempts to adapt as collaboration with the enemy, compromising the purity of the inner-directedness of the humanities by accepting the principle that anything valuable must be functional and quantifiable.

Strangely though, by arguing that the humanities make persons better, this approach still attempts to justify the humanities instrumentally. As Hannah Arendt has noted, studying the humanities in order to make yourself a 'better person' rather than for themselves is itself a kind of philistinism (in practice often founded in high society snobbery and elitism). Nussbaum has a profound sceptism for the ability of engineers to empathise with others or uphold the ideals of democracy; Slouka argues that the humanities train the critical habits necessary for republican citizenship.

Is this true? One of the problems of the humanities when they try to stand alone is that they lack a rigorous empirical basis. So they can make claims - e.g. about the exploitative nature of global capitalism or the role of the humanities in cultivating citizenship - which may make a lot of sense intuitively and be supported by evocative, even true, stories of particular lives. But the significance of these claims isn't systematically tested - that's the whole point - so one can easily arrive at a kind of 'biblical science' in which a worldview is driven by the interpretation of texts, not facts.

Responsible citizenship, surely requires a "sense" of proportion as well as "sensibility". Take capitalism. It is easy to find true terrible stories of conflict and exploitation in Africa driven by greed. But a convincing argument that this is caused by the global/Western capitalist system requires subtle quantitative methods to untangle complex causal webs as well as a sense of scale: if the whole GDP of sub-Saharan Africa is less than that of Belgium isn't it more likely that the 'capitalist system' just doesn't care about Africa than that it is busy exploiting it? The interesting question is not, 'Is the global order unjust?', but 'How important are its unjustices and how can they be ameliorated?'

So do the arts make better people and citizens, and by implication, do more quantitative subjects make worse? Well it's certainly possible, but I'd like to see some quantifiable evidence on it before I dismiss engineers as soulless proto-fascists.

Nevertheless the defensive humanists do have a point that the inner-directedness of the humanities does make them fundamentally different from the outwards-directed social and natural sciences. But this may not lead them where they want to go, since it actually suggests that the humanities are too important to be left to academia.

The modern model of a research university, with its incentives for academics to publish! publish! publish! at the expense of much connection to undergraduate students, is problematic even for the sciences which actually discover new things in the world, but it is completely wrong for the humanities, whose whole point is to bring people to discover for themselves - to recognise - what humanity collectively already knows. There is really no point in publishing the 10,000th article on Shakespeare when you could add so much more to the sum of human knowledge by teaching students to love and appreciate his work. But if teaching is the point, then why wait for a small group of agreeable students to come to you at university when high-school students are quite capable of appreciating art, literature, and philosophy? Or is all this talk about how essential the humanities are for the development of individuals just a rhetorical gambit to shore up the flagging status of university humanities departments.....?

The humanities should find ways to make themselves relevant to the modern world: numbers are not going to go away, but the humanities have much to offer in terms of the human-level interpretation and analysis we need to make sense of them and their limitations. There is a great need to bring this human 'wisdom' together with an appreciation of scientific rigour, numeracy, and respect for facts. For example, literature can help us understand tragedy and make sensible choices about good living and good dying that should certainly not be left to disease obsessed medical technologists and psychiatrists.

But the model should be one of teaching not research. We do need committed and respected masters of the canon to teach in every high-school so that students who go on to study or work in 'mathandscience' or business have the capability to humanise what they learn and do. But the world simply doesn't need more than a tiny number of PhD students and tenured academics busily researching and conferencing new interpretations of Plato, Faulkner or Austen using whatever opaque interpretative jargon is in current fashion. That's just silly, rather narcissistic, and a distraction from achieving the sharing of human wisdom that the whole enterprise should be about.