ARGH: the Association for the Rebuttal of Garbage about the Humanities

Words by John Uskglass
2nd July 2021

In trying to defend the humanities, some scholars seem to be addicted to incoherent and unconvincing arguments.

Culture

The humanities are great. We all love history, literature, politics, philosophy and the rest. But in their zeal to resist government cuts and general Philistinism, defenders of the humanities seem to be addicted to incoherent and unconvincing arguments.

Worse, no-one ever seems to call them out on this. Perhaps this is out of solidarity: scholars in other fields think they should stand up against all government cuts, because they never know who might be next. Perhaps it’s cynicism: other disciplines are quietly happy to gain from cuts to the humanities but they figure the cuts are coming anyway, so why make enemies out of colleagues in the mean time. Or perhaps it derives from a praiseworthy spirit of fairness, the natural reluctance to kick a man when he is down.

But whatever the cause, it’s a little embarrassing to see these unconvincing arguments trotted out regularly in the media, seemingly without challenge. And it is especially galling since one argument often used to defend humanities education is that it makes you good at “critical thinking” (more on that below).

It is in this spirit – an aesthetic dislike for garbage, rather than any kind of political programme – that I set out these objections to common arguments for the humanities.

  1. Fallacies of composition. A common trick when defending the employment record of humanities graduates or the practical impact of humanities research is to smuggle in a variety of peripheral subjects. Thus social sciences (including lucrative disciplines like economics and management) are added to the humanities in discussions of graduate salaries, or law and practical arts degrees are leant on to argue that humanities degrees are workplace-oriented. These tricked-up arguments for the benefits of the humanities are then used to support more ideal-typical humanities degrees, like English and History. The “creative industries” is the locus of a similar trick (the classification for this fast-growing sector includes not just obvious things like theatre and film, but also the software sector; “one of these things is not like the others”, as a wise woman once said.)
  2. Lottery-winner testimonials. It’s understandable that campaigners will deploy their most charismatic advocates to make their case. But when you see famous novelists being wheeled out to lament the declining number of people doing English degrees, you wonder how typical their experience is of English graduates in general. (Leave aside the question of what proportion of famous novelists have English degrees.) This feels especially true to the extent that a lot of careers in classic humanities fields like English or history are dominated by a few superstars, with most graduates not getting employment in the field. (There may be a case that having more English students increases your chance of creating a few lucky prize-winning novelists or globally successful TV producers, but that case is much more rarely made.)
  3. Dodgy economics. A recent bit of research by the British Academy is reported as saying “Of the ten fastest growing sectors, eight employ more graduates from arts, humanities and social science than other disciplines”. The Guardian interprets this as meaning that “humanities graduates are just as employable as scientists and mathematicians”. This is superficially plausible enough to be widely repeated, but it surely doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It tells us nothing about quality of the jobs, or more importantly about whether the human capital that humanities graduates acquire is actually valuable to these employers. It doesn’t say how many graduates there are in these fields to start with. And of course it adds in social scientists to sweeten the mix. It might be that humanities grads have very valuable skills that are driving lots of economic growth and are therefore very employable. But it could equally be that humanities degrees are worth little to employers and that graduates who take them are going into relatively low-skilled employment in low-productivity sectors, or that their degrees are valuable purely as a signal of general intelligence and conscientiousness and the subject matter is totally beside the point.
  4. “Critical thinking.” It’s often said that humanities graduates or scholars are especially well placed to do something called ‘critical thinking’. (Less in the Frankfurt School sense of the word ‘critical’, more in the careers-service sense.) This skill is claimed to be very useful for assessing claims in the workplace and as a citizen. It is certainly true that humanities degrees involve thinking about things to try to understand them. But then surely so do many other degrees. Indeed, most social and natural sciences deal extensively with statistics, which allows people to make sense of quantitative evidence; this seems to be a very important type of critical thinking we might want citizens and workers to engage in, and which is not prominent in many humanities disciplines. Even if we accept that critical thinking is a discrete skill that can be taught (itself questionable), the idea that it is the particular domain of the humanities feels very weak.
  5. Parity? You will have heard of the rhetorical idea of “proving too much”: when an argument is unconvincing because it implies not just the point its proponent intends to make, but further points that are implausible or ridiculous. When humanities defenders argue for “parity” between STEM and humanities, as sometimes happens, it feels like an example of this. After all, in every developed country, STEM research receives at least an order of magnitude more funding than humanities research. In the UK at least, STEM degrees are more expensive and are subsidised by humanities degrees. If the fields were truly equal, would we not want to equalise the resources we put into them? The fact that people making the parity argument are not arguing for this makes me think they don’t really believe it at all, or that’s just a form of benign bullshit.
  6. Equality. Recently, as some less elite universities in Britain have begun cutting certain humanities courses, a critique has emerged that this is bad because it promotes inequality. People from poor or racialised backgrounds, the argument goes, are more likely to attend less prestigious universities, and if those universities cut their English or History degrees, the humanities will become the preserve of the elite. I have some sympathy for this, but some scepticism too. To the extent that these degrees are often associated with worse graduate job prospects, there is something troubling about the idea that young people from poorer backgrounds should be urged into them, especially if the counterfactual is that they would do a different degree that would make them better off financially. (There’s a more general point to be made that increasing diversity in low-paid occupations seems to be more in the interest of the fields concerned – who gain in prestige from being seen to be more diverse – than of the young people in question.)
  7. Making trade-offs, assessing ethics etc. You hear this a lot about humanities research: computer scientists and statisticians may be able to research breakthroughs in AI, but you need humanities to decide what should be allowed, to make trade-offs and to set the rules; specifically, you need to fund humanities research to do this. A development economist might be able to run a trial to tell you which aid programme works better, but only the humanities can tell you that it’s ethical to give aid in the first place, we are told. But even if we accept that ethics are part of the humanities, it doesn’t follow that making ethical judgments is something that humanities researchers have to do. There are lots of other people in society whose job it is to rule on trade-offs and discuss ethics: politicians, judges, pundits, religious leaders, think-tanks and empowered citizens all do this. They may sometimes be applying the outputs of humanities research, but they are no more researchers than a writer using Microsoft Word is a computer scientist. Indeed, we would be very wary if someone claimed that academic humanities researchers should take precedence in these discussions, since they tend to come from a limited set of backgrounds and have class-interests that may differ systematically from the public at large.  One of the virtues of democracy is that we don’t delegate these tasks to expert researchers.
  8. “What it means to be human”. The Guardian article recently quoted an Oxford-educated novelist saying that English degrees are about “what makes us human”. Indeed, the word “humanities” itself telegraphs this claim. But it really is outrageous special pleading. Civil engineering, nursing, sociology, pure mathematics: all of these disciplines and countless others express something beautiful and unique about human nature – our desire to build, the skills of caring for one another in extremis, how we live with one another, our search for the most abstract truths of the universe. I don’t think any of those subjects should feel less central to the human condition than reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

So what’s going on here? I don’t think the defenders of the humanities are stupid. Indeed, I know that many of them are ferociously intelligent people. It might be an example of how people struggle when they reason outside of their area of expertise (though if that is true, it doesn’t bode well for the existence of a generalised capability of critical thinking).

Or perhaps it’s a form of passive resistance: maybe humanities scholars believe that their discipline is intrinsically worthwhile, and are tired of the political rigmarole of providing instrumental justifications for it. Arguing that the humanities are intrinsically worthwhile seems as good an argument to me as any.

All I know is that it’s painful to watch, and I wish it would stop.

John Uskglass is a writer working under a pseudonym.