“The Value of the Humanities” and other trick questions

This Friday, at the Oxford graduate conference on value, I asked a terrible question about “The Value of the Humanities” . It was during a roundtable between three senior academics, among them Helen Small, author of The Value of the Humanities. What I asked was, basically, whether we weren’t in fact throwing the Humanities under the bus by allowing the question “What is the Value of the Humanities?” in this broad, abstract way. I suggested that scientists rarely discuss the “Value of the Sciences” in this way, despite the fact that not all scientific work has obvious or immediate value.

Helen Small quickly pointed out that, of course, scientists have to prove the value of their work at least as much as we do and that they are constantly being reviewed: “If they don’t prove their value, they simply lose their labs”.

Patrick Hayes, the second panelist, was not as forgiving and said that my question made no sense because everybody has to prove the value of their work, otherwise nobody will pay them. At that point I panicked, blabbered something about broadness, and clandestinely attempted Hara-Kiri by pencil.

st dominic holding bible: Quote about digging hole deeper to find it s a grave

I am not convinced this quote is actually from St. Dominic but I really want it to be.

So this is the point where I find myself in a hole and keep on digging, in the hope that there is at least a deeper understanding on my part, on the other end. I think that maybe my error was one of communication and not of content. I think, the panel understood that I was asking whether we should allow questions about the value of our work or the work in our field. But what I had meant to ask was whether we should allow the question about THE Value of THE Humanities, instead of focusing on the value of our own and each other’s work.

This is why I brought up scientists. Of course, scientists have to prove the value of their work and the times of easy funding are well over. But as far as I’m aware, scientists, who have to show the value of their work in order to keep a lab or get funding, will try to make their work appear as valuable as possible but they will rarely argue for The Value of The Sciences, partially because the sciences, like the Humanities, are much too fragmented to make a single argument about their value.

Imagine if someone asked you “what gives your life meaning?” – a question that might be answered with the pursuit of knowledge, helping others, having fun, raising children, solving problems, etc. etc. – but instead you opt for  “So you want me to tell you the meaning of life?”. You are replacing a concrete question that has concrete answers, however difficult to uncover they might be and however much soul searching they might require, by one that is so abstract it can only be answered in platitudes, if at all.

There is no one size fits all answer and yet we ask the question as if there were and thereby make our answers ring hollow – surely, the meaning of life is not to have children or to pursue knowledge, even if these things give individual lives immense meaning. Surely, individual works in the Humanities have meaning, which cannot be extended to cover all of the discipline.

This is why what Helen Small  does in The Value of the Humanities is so valuable. The book does not put forward a single answer – Helen Small makes no single claim for the value of the Humanities herself – instead it shows that all the existing arguments can be classified as falling into one of five categories. Then she shows that no single answer is universally applicable. In fact, Helen countered some of my broadness claims by saying that, of course, part of the work in the Humanities is to take an impossibly broad question and break it down. And that’s exactly what she does. But all the people she critiques fail to do it and that’s why they end up with explaining the value of the Humanities with an answer as broad (and insufficient) as “Democracy needs us”.

The book goes on to critique the tendency of those engaged in a defence of the Humanities to make “us vs. them” dichotomies – to claim that “The Humanities” develop a particular intellectual ability or fulfil a particular role in society that “The Sciences” fail to. This is partially a bad idea because no matter what the quality is the Humanities are said to promote, there will always be works in the Humanities that do not accomplish or even attempt this and individual works in the Sciences which do. So no matter what argument you put forward for the Value of the Humanities, you are always inviting disproofs.

In its broadness, I think, the question for the Value of the Humanities is a trap. As we all know, when you ask for “the answer to the ultimate Question of  Life, the Universe, and Everything”, what you get is as helpful as “42” or “Democracy needs us”. But that does not mean that your work in the Humanities has no value; it simply means that its value is specific to itself and might be extended to a couple of other works but not to a discipline as vast and many-faceted as “The Humanities”. Just as the fact that I don’t know what the meaning of life is does not mean that my own life has no meaning.

Speaking of life, have I finished digging this grave, yet? Am I making it worse? Or is there value at the bottom of this pit?

Manatees under water. Text: A crime against you, manatees.

To make matters worse, here’s a really bad pun.


About Oxford DPhile

I'm a doctoral candidate in English at Somerville College, Oxford. My thesis, tentatively titled “Just Literature: Evil, Victorian Narrative, and the Problem of Theodicy”, explores the interplay between literature and theodicy – the justification of a good God in light of the existence of evil – in the works of A.H. Clough, J.A. Froude and George Eliot. I teach English Literature at the University of Würzburg, coach academic writing in English at Oxford, blog about the tricks and pitfalls of thesis writing, and love to collaborate. My novel "Das Unglück anderer Leute" was published by Galiani Berlin in August 2016.
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10 Responses to “The Value of the Humanities” and other trick questions

  1. Daedalus Lex says:

    Speaking of digging one’s own grave, here goes. I think you and the panelists both miss the point of the question about humanities. To you I’d say the question indeed needs to be asked and asked broadly. When a teenager picks a major, you’ll never hear a parent say “what is the value of science” but will frequently hear that question of humanities. There is a general assumption that science and engineering and business students will get jobs and contribute to the economy; humanities student won’t. This is the end result of an age that has redefined homo sapiens as homo economicus. So the question needs to be on the table, and parents (and society at large) are looking for a broad answer, not an answer about why Milton or Picasso is valuable. To the panelists, I’d say that the equivalence they suggest between justification of work in sciences and humanities misses the point. Like it or not, we are under more pressure than scientists to prove the general value of our disciplines. We can’t say we’re going to cure cancer or build electric cars. A forceful case can be made for the value of humanities (and it doesn’t have to be us vs them), but if those people on the panel don’t have a better answer for parents (and for society at large) than what you’ve recorded, this doesn’t bode well for the longevity of their programs. (This sounds cranky, but I offer it with love in my heart for all my brothers and sisters in humanities and the sciences 🙂 Yours, Gary (aka Domingo de Guzman)


    • ok, first in defence of the panelists, they were some of the smartest, most eloquent people I know and said some wonderful things. In defence of me, I’d recommend to the kid that has to defend it’s choice to not try and defend “the humanities” but whatever subject it specifically wants to do and for what reason… I can’t tell you what the value of the humanities is but I make a pretty convincing case for the value of my research and I think for most parents that should be enough… a lot of work in the humanities has as much (or as little) economical value as work in the sciences… in general I think we are better served defending our choices on its own merit or on individual cases rather than the super abstract. Perhaps a good way to argue for “the value of the humanities” would be to advocate work in the humanities that has value – be it economical, intellectual, emotional, political or social. Out of interest, what is your “forceful case” for the value of the humanities?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Daedalus Lex says:

        We may simply be talking about two different topics. I’m thinking lower level than you – incoming freshman, not Ph.D. candidate – the kid who wants to major in English Lit or Philosophy but isn’t yet focused on a narrower research area – what do we say to parents concerned that their kid may be washing dishes or waiting tables in 10 years, who want to see their kids going into something more “productive”? My “forceful case”? Wait, I’m still thinking. Hahaha. It would probably begin something like this: “If you think making money is the highest form of human achievement, don’t major in the Humanities.” And then basically critique that trajectory we’ve taken from homo sapiens to homo economicus, arguing that once minimal needs are met, a deeper understanding the riches of cultural history and the human imagination and human subjectivity is probably more fulfilling than generating profits and buying more and more stuff. I may lose that argument against the individual parent while still planting a seed for cultural change. (I’m sure the panelists are much better versed than I am on these matters, and I shouldn’t be judging their arguments out of context – I just thought from what I’d heard that they’d missed an opportunity.)

        Liked by 1 person

  2. gothenstocks says:

    ‘But that does not mean that your work in the Humanities has no value; it simply means that its value is specific to itself and might be extended to a couple of other works but not to a discipline as vast and many-faceted as “The Humanities”. Just as the fact that I don’t know what the meaning of life is does not mean that my own life has no meaning.’ I found myself nodding here. It’s generally the conclusion I’ve come to, being a disciplinary polyglot who won’t commit to one field or another within the humanities. I don’t make sweeping, abstract arguments about the ‘value of the humanities’ because I don’t see the point.

    Liked by 2 people

    • hmmm, that’s a good point. Maybe my dislike of the abstract comes from polydisciplinarity. I just know how incredibly different some of the disciplines I’ve meddled with are and that they demand completely different arguments. Maybe what’s needed is a sort of inductive argument for the value of the humanities?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Daedalus Lex says:

    Great topic, by the way. Or I should say “topics,” since I still suspect you and I were discoursing in two different rhetorical scenarios that happened to reference the same question. Anyway, it turned out to be a good touchstone for ideas 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you are right, and we are talking about two different scenarios and, more importantly, two different cultures. I imagined the German or English pupil who makes a choice for one (or two) subject(s). In Germany, for example, after school (at 18) you could choose English and Economics and make a very reasonable choice all round. I have to consider the American situation, which, I guess, is very different. But yes, I think the whole maze of “value of the humanities” is a very important and tricky topic that needs to be taken seriously…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Daedalus Lex says:

    “And I kept on digging…:” Guten Tag, Nele. I posted something of interest to you, with a link back to your blog 🙂


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