Mark Slouka has a stunningly good essay on our culture's general disdain for the humanities in favor of all things numerative and scientific. The entire article must be read in full, and is so good, it will take me two separate posts to highlight his discussion full.
Slouka's perspective cuts to the very heart of the medical humanities, of this blog, and of my own professional and personal identity.
As I move through both this post, and/or as the good readers of MH Blog read Slouka's thoughts, it is worth disclosing that in an entirely literal sense, I am driven by Aristotle's foundational question: what kind of a person do I want to be? I am particularly interested in the social version of this question: what kind of people do we want to be?
Slouka opens his essay:
Many years ago, my fiancée attempted to lend me a bit of respectability by introducing me to my would-be mother-in-law as a future Ph.D. in literature. From Columbia, I added, polishing the apple of my prospects. She wasn’t buying it. “A doctor of philosophy,” she said. “What’re you going to do, open a philosophy store?”
[ . . . ]
It’s a play I’ve been following for some time now. It’s about the increasing dominance—scratch that, the unqualified triumph—of a certain way of seeing, of reckoning value. It’s about the victory of whatever can be quantified over everything that can’t. It’s about the quiet retooling of American education into an adjunct of business, an instrument of production.
Indeed. To reduce such eloquence to a soundbite, Einstein will do: not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted. For a more scholarly take on the undeniable dominance of quantification in American culture, see the work of Theodore M. Porter.
During graduate school I took a course on aging in context of the medical humanities. In that course, I read a number of works which began to convince me that Western society's turn to using productivity as a paramount criterion of value is unfortunate at best and pernicious at worst. And here, let me emphasize that I use the term value in its proper, classical, humanistic sense. Value, not measured and quantified, but value in the Aristotelian spirit, read as an account of our social lives, our polis, our living and dying. The immensely powerful trope in which productivity defines one's social identity has devastating consequences for elderly persons in our society, because retirement, sickness, or injury result not just in the need for a radical transformation of self, but suggest that the economically unproductive life is not worth living.
This is not what Socrates had in mind.
More from Slouka:
What is taught, at any given time, in any culture, is an expression of what that culture considers important.
[ . . . ]
In our time, orthodoxy is economic. Popular culture fetishizes it, our entertainments salaam to it (how many millions for sinking that putt, accepting that trade?), our artists are ranked by and revered for it. There is no institution wholly apart. Everything submits; everything must, sooner or later, pay fealty to the market; thus cost-benefit analyses on raising children, on cancer medications, on clean water, on the survival of species, including—in the last, last analysis—our own. If humanity has suffered under a more impoverishing delusion, I’m not aware of it.
Quite so. I have tried, in my own feeble way, to echo Slouka's concerns in my consistent warnings of the error of reducing discussions of health policy to cost-benefit analyses (or any other descriptive program). It is, of course, important and relevant to understand how patterns of health, illness, and human suffering are shaped by costs and benefit. But never can the collective decisions we do and do not make -- our answers to the beacon of Aristotle's question -- be reduced to such programs, for they cannot absolve us of the awful responsibility to decide which pathways and practices are virtuous. And efficiency is not a cipher for virtue, which means sometimes virtue would require us to act inefficiently. Yet in my own little sphere, the conversations so frequently end once the calculations have been performed, and the costs and benefits have been lined up, when in fact, this is simply the beginning of the conversation. Or at least, it should be.
The questions are straightforward enough: What do we teach, and why?
[ . . . ]
Our primary function, in other words, is to teach people, not tasks; to participate in the complex and infinitely worthwhile labor of forming citizens, men and women capable of furthering what’s best about us and forestalling what’s worst. It is only secondarily—one might say incidentally—about producing workers.
I would not even put the task of producing workers as worthy of second order status, or if I would, I would require an extremely large chasm between the normative importance of the first-order goal Slouka articulates and the need for producing workers. Even the discourse on the crisis of education is accounted for in terms of labor and productivity:
From the local PTA meeting to the latest Presidential Commission on Education, the only subject under discussion, the only real criterion for investment—in short, the alpha and omega of educational policy—is jobs. Is it any wonder, then, that our educational priorities should be determined by business leaders, or that the relationship between industry and education should increasingly resemble the relationship between a company and its suppliers, or that the “suppliers” across the land, in order to make payroll, should seek to please management in any way possible, to demonstrate the viability of their product?
Thus concludes Part I. In Part II, I will address the case Slouka makes for the humanities. Needless to say, please don't wait for my bare attempts at exposition. Read Slouka.
(h/t Leiter Reports)