The Myth of Usefulness

“Let me recite what history teaches. History teaches.”  –Gertrude Stein

Students who major in humanities degrees today have to put up with a lot of comments from their peers and relatives about the uselessness of a Humanities degree. As a Graduate Associate, this author personally witnessed many University of Pennsylvania undergraduates turn away from the humanistic subjects they wanted to major in because their parents wouldn’t let them or because they wanted to have a “useful” degree for finding a job. Meanwhile, the term “critical thinking skills” has been used so frequently, in so many contexts, to encapsulate the usefulness of the humanities that it has lost any actual meaning. What does it really mean to label a field as “useful” or not? What is the usefulness of the humanities, and to what extent can it be explained in more meaningful terms than “critical thinking skills?”

Unfortunately, out of a desire to want to make some impact on the world, this author feels that an inability to figure out how to make that impact through the humanities in a tangible, easy-to-articulate way might persuade just as many students to avoid majoring in it as the lack of a clear career path does. It doesn’t help that many of the authorities within the field of the humanities wish to avoid discussions of its “usefulness,” as though they feel to discuss a field addressing such grand questions as what it means to be “human” in terms of how it is “useful” somehow dirties its shiny veneer.

Yet, it is precisely this kind of grandiose attitude–that the humanities shouldn’t have to be explained in terms of usefulness–that grates at the ears of many individuals who are not within the field and even makes them suspicious of it. How convenient that humanists feel they should not have to explain the usefulness of the field they have majored in, perhaps even devoted their lives to. Are they hiding the fact that it has no purpose?

Of course not! If a field of study exists, then we already know it is useful to somebody, for some purpose. Otherwise, it would have died out in society a long time ago. This is the “myth” of usefulness—not the concept itself, but the idea that some fields of study are somehow more “useful” than others. If the humanities still exist after hundreds of years, then they clearly play a role in societies, useful to at least some kinds of people for at least some purpose.

If for no other reason than to increase the attractiveness of this field of study to prospective students, it is important to stop acting like the usefulness of the humanities is some huge secret, and to discuss it plainly. Let’s begin by asking of the humanities first the question “For what purpose is it useful?” followed by the question “To whom is it useful?”

To grossly over-simplify, it could be said that studying the humanities in essence is a process of constantly refining a society’s understanding of history. The same way that the sciences are basically all rooted in math, the humanities are rooted in history. Those who teach the humanities spend their days rummaging through archives of history and literature, trying their best to thread together some kind of narrative from the piecemeal primary source documents available in libraries. Without humanists, there would be no way to discuss history– no way to articulate what has happened before and is happening now. We would have no historical narratives, but only primary source documents like novels, films, diaries, letters, census records, property and tax documents, shipping records, and so on, all available in libraries for anybody’s leisurely perusal.

The problem is, who has time to spare to sit around in libraries sifting through all of this material? Humanists do the work of putting together a narrative from primary source documents so that everyone else can have a sense of history without having to go through years of research just to figure out a general overview of the history of their country or the origins of their people, to name just a few of the kinds of historical topics people often like to know about.

“But why is it important to have a sense of history?” some extremists may ask. “Can’t we just go about our lives conducting our business transactions, healing our sick, arguing our legal cases, and building new appliances and technologies without knowing anything about history?” By now though, all but the most die-hard anti-humanists must recognize the foolishness of such a proposition. In order to innovate, it is necessary to know what has come before. That makes the humanities important to all of the aforementioned fields—business, medicine, law, and engineering. We wouldn’t know about pre-existing developments and their implications in those fields without historians who have written histories of them. Without an understanding of the history behind everyday practice in these fields, it would be impossible to imagine what changes might be innovative, and what changes conversely might be taking a step backwards.

Expanding more generally to think about all of the humanities, rather than just those which research applied subjects, the humanities builds knowledge by constantly refining and coming up with new facts about history. The more of these historical facts we have, and the more accurate and precise they become, the more evidence we have to critically evaluate claims and arguments. It is difficult to persuasively discredit a claim when no evidence is available to suggest any other possible interpretations, but it becomes easier to find counter-examples the more knowledge is available to society. Ultimately, then, a society that includes a burgeoning culture of humanistic study and research will be a democratic one.

Let us consider the second question: “To whom is the humanities useful?” Perhaps not to would-be demagogues who want to regale the populace with their own skewed versions of history, and perhaps not to other kinds of people whose power is dependent on acceptance of one particular interpretation of historical events they would rather not have questioned. However, for the rest of us, the humanities are one of the most powerful tools we have to maintain democratic societies and autonomy as individuals. This is not the sole reason that the humanities is useful, and it is not by any means the sole fruit of studying it. It is an important purpose of the field, however, and no other field of study meets quite the same need in a society.

To ignore this crucial purpose of the humanities is to deny the field one of the very roles that has allowed it to thrive for almost as long as human society is old. In general, a much more productive mode of discussing usefulness and its relationship to different fields of study would emerge if we all took as an assumption that if the field exists, then somebody finds it useful for some purpose. Reframing this discussion in these terms would help us to better understand how different fields relate to each other and together uphold a social structure.