Monday, October 22, 2018

The Crisis of the Humanities (III): Am I a Better Person?

Are the humanities in crisis? And, if so, what can -- or, should -- be done about it? I have to admit that I don't really know the answer to either question. Instead, I've been trying to address some of the internal self-criticism generated by the humanities themselves. In particular, I tried to argue that supposed defenders of the humanities who assert limited "my way or the highway" definitions of the humanities as the practice of pure contemplation and who poo-poo the digital humanities and other skill-based pro-humanities arguments are off track. They are, in fact, making claims based on their own limited and, often, unsupported views about what they happen to think is best, rather than what is actually going on in the humanities. Their view, I have implied, has some measure of irresponsibility to it because: (a) they ignore legitimate merits of a humanities based education, (b) to argue that they should be paid to contemplate with the taxpayers who fund their contemplating having no say at all. Worse, yet, (c) these supposed defenders of the humanities are contributing to the very crisis of the humanities that they decry. They are, to be sure, not the only factor involved but the tendency of the humanities to attack itself does not help its cause.

In this blog I want to begin to address another line of argument raised by Stanley Fish: there is nothing inherent to a humanities based education that makes one a better person. This is part of Fish's general rejection of arguments put forward in support of humanities education. Fish argues that any self improvement that occurs in the humanities not the result of design but incidental to the general process of education itself. Hence, he contends, any arguments that the humanities might make for support based on the idea that they help people develop as people (what we might call self-actualize) is misplaced and non-operative from the get go. Let's begin this discussion by thinking about the overall merits of education and what we might mean by being a "better" person. In the next blog, I'll try to continue this discussion and move to a social level.

I think Fish is wrong but he raises a good point. There are merits to education, regardless of what form and focus that education takes. Here, I am using the word "education" to refer to a series of processes that involve both the accumulation of knowledge, information literacy skills, critical analytic skills, self reflection, and the like. In other words, I am differentiating education from propaganda. I've blogged on this before and so will not repeat arguments I have already made. Just assume the difference.

What the studies we have show us is that education --formal, informal -- at higher levels has a range of benefits: it seems to improve voter turnout, civic activism and volunteering, for instance. Higher education also seems to lower crime rates and improve life-long earning potential. And, it does seem to make people happier. Now this is not perfect. You will notice the word "seem" in this discussion. The interpretation of the data requires more nuance than I can (and will) devote to it hear and, to be sure, there are problems. For instance, gender is an important factor contributing to earning potential as well. But, the point is this: the data that we have points in one direction: more education is better than less education.

This makes sense. If given the choice, would you rather be more educated or less educated? If you were making decisions for someone's life, would you help them get more education or less education? When we think about different countries and societies and places to live around the world, which do we think are better: those with higher levels of education or lower levels of education? In fact, levels of higher educational attainment are now often used as one of the features that differentiate cities. When we study universities to assess whether or not they are doing their job, one of the metrics we use is completion rates: what percent of students are actually getting the education for which they paid. Thus, while I know this issue is complicated, the general point is nonetheless true. Education has its merits and we can empirically demonstrate this.

What of the humanities? Can we demonstrate their merits? Sort of.  The answers are less clear when we start to break down different types of education because the studies don't usually do this. They usually look at educational attainment, rather than History or Philosophy graduates verses, say, Commerce or Psychology or Physics grads. Such data is available in different ways but the general studies -- say, of crime rates and educational attainment -- don't query whether or not a History grad is more likely to become a criminal than a Biology grad but whether or not a grad is more more likely to become a criminal than a non-grad. See what I mean?

But, this does not mean that we have no evidence and we cannot make some arguments. First, there is nothing in the evidence that shows that humanities graduates are dramatically worse off than other grads. There is, as far as I can tell, some earning differences but these don't strike me as too significant (and really merit a discussion of their own). And, there are interesting trends in the anecdotal evidence. It shows that a broad range of employers like humanities graduates and, in fact, find them preferable to grads in other disciplines. This does not make you a better person but it does suggest that there are merits to the humanities. I'm not at all certain that I would agree with Fish -- that these merits are incidental. Instead, I would put it differently: education is beneficial and the humanities provide education.

What about being a better person? This is an even more difficult issue to address because it forces us to venture into a subjective ground: what makes someone better? My intention is not to enter into this discussion but to suggest that we should accept some level of subjective perspective and to argue that self-actualization is one ground on which we might rest claims to "better." Why? Because self-actualization (becoming better at being yourself and meeting your own objectives) does not require me to impose my thinking about what is better on someone else. Said differently, better does not equal, for example, thinking like me or knowing more of what I know or reading the books I read or looking at movies the way I look at movies. Instead, it takes advantage of subjective perspectives to ask "does the humanities help people be better?" and leaves the definition of better up to them.

Why would anyone be concerned about being better? Or, at least someone might ask this. Is not the whole idea elitist? Who are you, Andrew Nurse, someone might ask, to tell me (say, a person reading this blog) that I need to be a better version of myself?

That is a good question. I am sure that there are bunch of people out there who are really just plain old happy with themselves. Good. I am not arguing that you should be unhappy with yourself. Indeed, I would likely resent it if someone came by -- particularly someone I did not know -- and told me that I should do something to improve myself.

And ... yet ... does not the idea of self-improvement haunt our society? Go into any Chapters outlet and you'll find an entire section of self-help books: habits of successful people, how to win friends and influence people, how to lose weight, the secret of happiness, but it does not end there. One can find books of remaking one's space, on succeeding in athletics or business or the best places to travel and nifty things to see. One of the odd things about supposedly elitist suggestions with regard to self improvement is that the suggestions for self improvement (being a better self) rarely come from people like me: academics. Academics talk about all kinds of things all the time. How to fix the democratic deficit (better public policy), policies that will address unemployment (better economy), ways to make molecules do nifty things (better, say, medicine), or how to use a telescope to see a star (better research). But, most of the suggestions for being better come not from academics but from mass media. Daytime TV is populated with shows that focus on this but so is speciality programming (one show I watched the other day showed car wreck of a bar transformed -- in a way that helped a community heal after a hurricane -- into a new and snazzy bar that remade self confidence and community).

Said differently, I am not actually claiming to tell anyone how they can be better. I'll ask some more pointed questions in my next blog, but those people suggesting that we can be better and they know the secret of how to do it are legion. They are just not, by and large, in the academy.

What is more important, however, is that no one seems to object to what these people are doing. Whereas some folks will get hot under the collar of an academic says something about self improvement, no one seems to mind at all that there are quite literally hundreds of books out there on the subject, motivational speakers that charge an arm and a leg to come to your company or school to talk about how we can all be better, tv shows that focus endlessly on the theme.

Why? Well, the issue is not better nor who says it. I'm not particularly interested in the disjuncture between something being bad *if I do it* and good if some guy on TV does it. I am interested in what all this tells us about culture and the thing it tells us is that people are interested in better. They may not be interested in what I have to say, and they don't have to be, but they are interested in finding ways to self-actualize: to meet their own objectives, to live a better and, I dare say, richer life. Our society watches these TV shows, buys these books, goes to the talk and pays a premium for the seminar to find out the secrets of life and the way to lead a better, more full-filling and deeper, more meaningful life.

It is not me, I hasten to add, saying that this is a good thing. It is ordinary people (ordinary Canadians) out there watching these shows, going to the talks, buying the books. For a variety reasons about which I am not going to write, there is a desire for something more. Once we establish that fact, then I think we can start to have a discussion of the role the humanities might play in it. That, at least, is the subject of my next blog.
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