Barton Swaim considers and rejects five common ways of defending the humanities in his review in the weekend WSJ of Helen Small’s, The Value of the Universities:

The author considers five major arguments defending the humanities. They are, briefly: (1) the humanities cultivate intellectual disciplines that the hard and social sciences either ignore or don’t emphasize; (2) the humanities are “useful” to society in ways that aren’t quantifiable; (3) the humanities bring a higher sort of happiness to those with a mind to study them; (4) the humanities prepare students for democratic citizenship (Ms. Small calls this the “democracy needs us” argument); and (5) the humanities matter “for their own sake”—they need no justification.

What are these “humanities” the “value” of which is being debated?  Swaim enumerates: “art, music, history, and literature.”  I am assuming that philosophy and the history of ideas are included as well, and also the classical trivium of logic, grammar, and rhetoric.

If one brings in these other subjects, the debate is baffling.  Is there much doubt about the importance of logical and clear thinking, and apt expression, and the difficulty of acquiring these without systematic study?  Or might it not be helpful to be able to trace–in history and in the development of ideas– the carnage, poverty, and environmental wreckage produced by communist regimes of the 20th century, back to the revolutions which had these results (just to give one example)?  Ideas do have consequences.

Again, whose fault is it that youth culture now produces Miley Cyrus rather than the young Mozart or at least a Leonard Bernstein?  Surely not that some people are trying to teach the appreciation of classical music.


One suspects that it is not “the humanities” as enumerated so broadly but rather the study of literature in particular that causes perplexity.  Put aside literary theory– I doubt its value also–and consider solely literature.  The question has to be approached through a consideration of this particular student, an intelligent 17- or 18-year old going off to college to receive ostensibly a “higher” education.  If you love this person, what do you want for him or her?  The answer should be: an integrated education which educates the whole person.  And if the thoughtful reading of literature is neglected and omitted, one gets: “men without chests,” (see C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, lecture 1); adults who likely have no habit of reading literature or love of literature; and persons who will be closed to deep insights into human nature, and basic realities of human life, such as love, romance, and the family.  But to wish for the end is to wish for the means.  If, out of love of this person, you wish that he or she receive the integrated education which I have quickly outlined, then you must wish also that there be experts who provide help in the teaching of these things — experts in texts, authors, time periods, influences and sources, and cultural and political contexts. 


Blanford Parker, Professor of Literature, Ave Maria University