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The Value of the Humanities

Helen Small’s The Value of the Humanities (Oxford UP, 2013) is an erudite study of the rationale for the study of the humanities. The book aims to outline the main arguments in support of the humanities. It succeeds wonderfully in doing this, placing the contemporary debates in their broader historical context.

The volume has an Introduction (Ch. 1), a conclusion, entitled On Public Value (Ch. 7) and five main chapters: (Ch. 2) Use and Usefulness; (Ch. 3) Socrates Dissatisfied: The Argument for a Contribution to Happiness; (Ch. 4) ‘Democracy Needs Us’: The Gadfly Argument for the Humanities; and (Ch. 5) For It’s Own Sake.

The introduction provides an overview of the structure of the book and offers a preliminary review of some of the most significant literature on the value of the humanities from the past couple centuries as relevant to present discussions. This moves from John Ruskin and William Morris, through Matthew Arnold to John Stuart Mill. Each main chapter outlines main arguments for the value of the humanities.

In “Distinction from Other Disciplines” Small drives home that a distinguishing characteristic of the humanities is that they are connected to meaning-making activities fundamental to our lives as subjects. The cultivation of writing, speaking and thinking skills provides individuals with the opportunity to develop a distinctive self-understanding and their own distinctive voice (26). Philosophy here has a special role as a discipline that cultivates thinking about thinking and thinking about meaning. Small here critically addresses C.P. Snow’s two culture argument, which expresses regret at the division that has arisen between the sciences and the humanities. While Small does not question that the disciplines in these areas can inform one another, she underlines some of the differences between these areas and highlights that the third-person perspective of the sciences simply does not allow certain issues to be addressed in the manner that they can be in the humanities. Further, in her extremely thorough review of the literature she underlines the interaction that occurs not only between the humanities and sciences, but also between these and a third culture, the social sciences. Here she approvingly quotes Shelly Kagen, noting that humanists “remind society of its contradictions, articulate salient emotional states, detect changing cultural premises, confront their cultures deepest moral dilemmas and document the unpredictable events that punctuate a life or historical era” (qtd. on 51).

Chapter 3 on Use and Uselessness takes aim at the prevailing dominance of instrumental value. Small draws learned parallels between the arguments over time among those who contrasted the learning of the ancients and the moderns, literature and science, and culture and science, noting that in each case the partisans are often unfair in their treatment of their opponents’ positions. She outlines Matthew Arnold’s rejection of utility in particular detail, noting both his early view that the aim of education should be self-knowledge and his later developed perspective that it should allow the cultivation of the best selves possible and culturally of “the best that has been thought and said” (qtd. on 81). While she does not go the whole way in defending Arnold’s rejection of instrumentalism, she defends an “Arnoldian modernist” position insistent that the importance of the humanities not be overlooked.

In looking into the argument that the humanities can contribute to our own happiness in Chapter 3, Small reviews some of the empirical information available from happiness studies. For example, according to the 2012 World Happiness Report, “74 per cent of ‘deeply happy’ people have some exposure to formal education, but 9 per cent of ‘unhappy people’ have none” (92). There are of course problems with this argument: given that poorer countries will have less possibilities for formal education, the happiness could track in part to wealth and poverty; and further, formal education might not be education in the humanities. But she points to this type of research as one avenue to further pursue.

In the main, however, Small focuses on utilitarian accounts. She offers a detailed exploration of John Stuart Mill’s own complex emotional life and of how his theoretical developments track to this. Mill is well-known for having suffered from depression. Small highlights that Mill’s response to the poetry of Marmontel’s Memoirs led to his own “emotional recovery” (103). More generally, according to his own accounts, his exposure to the humanities proved a key to the development of his own character and ultimately to his own happiness (112ff.). Mill emphasizes that our own sentiments develop in our cultures in ways that can show more or less “intelligence of emotions” (123). A higher education makes it possible for us to experience greater aesthetic and emotional pleasures.

In Mill’s theoretically developed view, in a good society individuals would learn to care about the happiness of others (105). Paradoxically, he argues: “Those only are happy…who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness” (qtd on 107). It is not through pursuing happiness that we achieve it. But it is possible for us to achieve it by committing ourselves to endeavors greater than ourselves. A cultural education aids us in achieving this.

Small’s intention here is not to unreservedly support Mill’s view. She in fact agrees with Mill’s friend Grote that “there are wants of our animal nature the satisfaction of which is happiness in the view of he  economist: but human life develops wants and feelings much beyond all this, and here it is as hard to find universally accepted pleasures as it is to find universally accepted notions of duty” (Qtd. on 124). However,  she thinks it is important that those today looking at the contribution of the humanities to our happiness be reminded of Mill’s significant insights into this issue.

She begins Chapter 4, “Democracy Needs Us,” noting “insofar as the humanities possess a strong piety about their own value, at present, it is the piety that they, of all the faculties of the university, are a force for the democracy” (125). She critically discusses Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit (2010) for having a somewhat moralistic tone and overlooking historical nuances on views of the relationship between humanities education and democracy. Small throws her own net broader than Nussbaum, highlighting that in fact the classical claim for the importance of humanities education predates democracy. Here, education was thought vital to prepare those who will assume political leadership, equipping them with what Ian Hunter has called “a common set of discursive and moral reflexes” (130). Traditionally it is highlighted that this is needed especially for the leadership class.

Though Small does think the humanities have a value for democracy, in general, she thinks that this value is often over-stated and the reasoning on this issue often lacks subtlety. “Arnold, Mill, Newman, Ruskin, Pattison,” she notes, “all would have agreed that a school and university education should involve training in skills that have a potentially valuable political application: a critical understanding of history, knowledge of other cultures, some competence in other languages. All these writers held that the possession of an idea of culture, in which the arts had a guaranteed place, was crucial to the flourishing of the individual and the progress of society” (133). But not all of them would have maintained that an objective of education is to create good citizens. Some of them argued that it makes a necessary contribution to general happiness. A few of leading cultural figures, like William Morris, have maintained it was necessary for creating the conditions for an equal society. Yet it isn’t clear that many of these thinkers view the humanities as having primacy over social sciences or other disciplines. Mill, in particular, doesn’t focus on the humanities as so vital for civic education as he does on political economy and the study of international law. Only as third in importance does he speak of “the principle systems of moral philosophy” (see 135). One pragmatic role Small does see for humanities education in a democracy is that it prepares teachers for primary and secondary education, who then play a vital role in civics education.

Small mentions some of the voices of dissent about the relationship of formal humanities education to democracy: Does it more often serve to inculcate students to a dominant ideology than to be critical of it in ways that might transform society? Might the focus on the role of the humanities in civic formation truncate the humanities and narrow the type of humanities education we engage in?

In general, Small argues that it is possible to defend claims of the value of the humanities to democracy. Yet, she thinks it important that such claims are not definitional for the humanities. Humanities education has a value far superseding their contribution to political order.

“For It’s Own Sake,” Chapter 5 of the book, looks clearly at some of the arguments that the humanities are not in the service of democracy or anything else outside of themselves. In this context, Small analyses in historical context the discussion of what intrinsic value is. She notes “There is probably no non-metaphysical defense for the value of the humanities. There is however ample room for a considered account of why humanities are worthy of our valuing them ‘for their own sake'” (163). By “for their own sake” she means something along the lines of weighty in light of “long-standing  cultural agreements and evolving local settlements about what in our culture has more and less durable worth for us an (not always the same thing) what will reward study” (167). Small approvingly quotes John Guillory: “Knowledge should be defended for its own sake, not solely for its instrumental benefits, because it is the object of a human desire, the desire to know, a desire that ought not to be frustrated any more than any other human desire” (172). “This value as an end,” as Henry Newman had noted and Small summarizes “is still value apprehended by individual subjectivities within particular societies and cultures and at particular historical junctures” (172 f.).

In her concluding chapter Small summarizes her “pluralistic defense of the humanities” (176). The humanities do a particular kind of work concerned with meaning-making that is vital to our lives as subjects. They serve to preserve and develop culture to meet present needs. They contribute to individual and collective happiness. They allow the cultivation of skills in critical analysis and debate that are core skills needed in a democracy or for political systems more generally. Finally, they are good in themselves.

One of the key takeaways is simply that we would have lesser lives without the humanities in them. The cultivation of culture that occurs in the humanities contributes to richer and better lives.

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