See here for Part I.
Continuing on with Slouka's analysis, we left off by explaining that even those at the vanguard of pushing for greater attention and resources for education frame their case in economic terms. Says Slouka, "[i]t can be touching to watch supporters of the arts contorting themselves to fit."
It would be bad enough on its own terms to reduce the value of education to the production of capital, but what makes it far worse is that it is a total corruption of the studia humanitatis itself, the entire point of this was to teach us how to be better human beings, to cultivate virtuous practice. To say this is not to imply that the humanists and those fortunate enough to receive a humanist education were unconcerned with the practical world. Quite the contrary; the measure of virtue was the way in which it produced betterment in the actual, daily interactions of community and society. I have remarked on several occasions that if I were to attribute an ethos to the studia humanitatis, it would be "practical engagement." But such engagement, in the service of virtue, is a galaxy far far away from viewing the primary role of education as increasing capital.
Yet, the able reader wants to know, how can I claim with a straight face that the humanities are characterized by a focus on practical engagement? Examining the state of the humanities in undergraduate and graduate education does not inspire confidence that due attention to practical engagement is the norm. Slouka is well aware of these concerns, and reserves some of his sharpest criticism for his fellow humanities scholars and teachers:
No assessment of the marginalized role of the humanities today is possible without first admitting the complicity of those in the fold.
[ . . . ]
[University humanities scholars], in a pathetic attempt to ape their more successful colleagues in the sciences, have developed over time their own faux-scientific, isolating jargon, robbing themselves of their greatest virtue, their ability to influence (or infect) the general population. Verily, self-erasure is rarely this effective, or ironic.
Though I have both a background and facility in the kinds of critical theory that I believe Slouka is targeting, I have intentionally chosen not to frame my own scholarship in such style. The reason, again, is my commitment to the Aristotelian question, to what I perceive as the ethos of the humanists themselves. If the point of the humanities, historically understood, is to cultivate virtuous practice through practical engagement with the world, adopting a style of thinking and writing that is basically dense with impenetrable jargon virtually ensures that nothing I say or do as a scholar will have any meaning to all but a few hundred people (at most) around the world.
Again, the question looms: what kind of a person do I want to be? I have no delusions of grandeur, I hope. But I cannot knowingly and intentionally choose a life as a scholar which makes even more likely the notion that little I say, teach, or write about will accomplish much in terms of practical engagement. Perhaps in some fields of inquiry or disciplines in the humanities, the choice of style and discourse is more acceptable, but I honestly feel that when one's concern is health and illness in society, such a luxury, if it is indeed a luxury, is gone.
We humanities scholars either want to help, or we do not. And it is hard for me to understand how much help we can be if we choose to communicate in ways that can barely be understood by those whom we should most want to reach (whether scholars and educations from other disciplines and traditions, or illness sufferers, caregivers, etc.).
All that said, why study the humanities? Why should we care that they are marginalized from both within and without? Defunded, declined, denied?
The case for the humanities is not hard to make, though it can be difficult—to such an extent have we been marginalized, so long have we acceded to that marginalization—not to sound either defensive or naive. The humanities, done right, are the crucible within which our evolving notions of what it means to be fully human are put to the test; they teach us, incrementally, endlessly, not what to do but how to be.
Note, of course, that this is simply Aristotle's question recast in Plato's terms: how shall we live? IMO, Slouka is absolutely correct that assessing how we shall live is and has been the raison d'etre for the humanities for thousands of years; it is unquestionably the central theme of the studia humanitatis. Note also the implication that such a task is perforce value-laden and political. I have little patience for the frequent calls to avoid politicizing health policy, nor for the same calls with regards to teaching and scholarship. There are, to be sure, some very real concerns that I imagine opponents are referencing in such a call, but the resolution is to act on those concerns (i.e., closed-mindedness, exclusion of viewpoints) rather than launch a quixotic and absurd quest to strip from an inherently, intentionally political, value-laden activity politics and values.
Anyone with the slightest awareness of who Socrates was and what happened to him cannot possibly believe the legitimacy of the notion that practitioners of the humanities should strive to remove politics and values from their work (as if they can be eliminated or even minimized to any great extent). Slouka explains it thusly:
They are thus, inescapably, political. Why? Because they complicate our vision, pull our most cherished notions out by the roots, flay our pieties. Because they grow uncertainty. Because they expand the reach of our understanding (and therefore our compassion), even as they force us to draw and redraw the borders of tolerance. Because out of all this work of self-building might emerge an individual capable of humility in the face of complexity; an individual formed through questioning and therefore unlikely to cede that right; an individual resistant to coercion, to manipulation and demagoguery in all their forms.
Slouka moves on to conclude that the humanities are critical to forming vibrant democracy, and to building democratic values. There is likely some truth to this, but I generally do not share many theorists' enthusiasm on such grounds, mostly because I concur with Churchill that democracy is absolutely the worst form of government imaginable except for all the other ones that have ever been tried. Nor do I agree for one moment with Slouka's contention that the practice of science is politically neutral. This is both conceptually and empirically untenable, neither the human enterprise of scientific practice is apolitical, nor are the uses to which it is put.
Nevertheless, these are relatively minor quibbles. So there, gentle readers, you have it. A masterful essay, truly. I am not remotely hopeful that the low cultural value we assign to the humanities will be staunched or reversed any time in the near future. The reasons why I am pessimistic have much to do with the reasons why science and medicine enjoy such dominance, why they are the great social legitimizers of contemporary American and Western society.
That scientific perspectives enjoy such dominance is, as Slouka reminds, only a problem because there are some things a scientific perspective simply is not designed to illuminate. Engaging the deep questions -- how shall we live? what kind of people do we wish to be? -- is primary among them. Which is not to say a scientific perspective is irrelevant to these questions, but merely that our capacity to reflect deeply and meaningfully on how best to live, and then to do so, is in large part a function of our recourse to a peculiarly humanities-based point of view.