Why The Humanities Still Have Purpose

The humanities have much to offer to professionals in every field, from science to law to finance—if only their defenders knew how to make a convincing case to the general public. Donald Drakeman’s new book offers several approaches to making that case.

We live in an age of skepticism about the value of the humanities. This skepticism grows out of a casual cost-benefit analysis: the sense that we as a society, and as parents, don’t get a decent return on our educational investments—and that the humanities really aren’t good for much. Colleges and universities are their own worst enemies in this calculus. They raise costs at rates that far outstrip inflation, and they hire faculty—especially in the humanities and social sciences—who seem dedicated to speaking mostly to each other, about things in which only a very small number of individuals could possibly feign interest.

In his surprising new book Why We Need the Humanities: Life Science, Law and the Common Good, Donald Drakeman gives us reasons to embrace the humanities again. He convincingly argues that traditional defenses of the humanities, centered on their inherent worth to a fully human life, should be supplemented by instrumental arguments. While accepting the notion that the humanities possess intrinsic merit, Drakeman goes beyond it to suggest they are vitally necessary to secure our legal rights, our material prosperity, and our physical well-being. As he notes, such an instrumental defense becomes particularly important in times of economic downturn, when resources are spread thin and pressures increase for concentrating those resources in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.

The humanities, for Drakeman, are eminently practical. Far from being in tension—or outright conflict—with instrumental calculations, they are themselves instrumental to such calculations. It is a matter of historical record, although a record that’s often difficult to unearth, that the “scholars whose work has been called upon by the relevant decision-makers—primarily, healthcare policy-makers and Supreme Court justices—have been professors of philosophy (both ancient and modern), law and jurisprudence, history, theology and religion, medical ethics, politics and social psychology.” A modern high-tech economy that protects the rights of its citizens requires the “ongoing contributions” of the humanities—as does the modern university, which is increasingly invested in the STEM fields. As a constitutional scholar and healthcare entrepreneur, the author is uniquely well situated to argue in favor of the humanities’ practicality.

Making clear the usefulness of the humanities should, Drakeman thinks, go a long way toward ensuring that society will continue to pay for them. His approach is not to define the humanities abstractly and then explain why we need them, but rather to concentrate on what we need—in law, medicine, and political economy—and then show how insights and arguments from the humanities have satisfied these needs. He encourages us to reconsider and reconfigure the fashionable and vacuous boilerplate of the educational establishment, including the mantra that the humanities stimulate “critical thinking” or develop appropriate human values.

Drakeman insists the humanities have played a critical role in stimulating growth in biomedical research, with its attendant benefits to society. The healthcare STEM fields require large research expenditures in universities, and policy-makers must justify those expenditures on the grounds that they will be repaid not only through improved healthcare outcomes but also through increased material prosperity. But “very difficult, and largely unresolved, issues of distributive justice, fairness and the nature of the common good” inevitably influence the funding for scientific research. Venture capitalists will not make private, job-creating investments unless they can be confident that someone in society—patients, insurance companies, or governments—will pay for new treatments. Pioneering research doesn’t just happen: It typically happens only after arguments have been made over what, when, where, and how much—and after those arguments result in reasonable certainty of return on investment. In healthcare research, as in all other areas of human life, cost-benefit analyses are invariably undertaken, trade-offs made, and resources allocated—something especially apparent in single-payer healthcare systems such as the United Kingdom’s. A decision by Britain’s National Health Service “not to approve payment for a new drug is, practically speaking, the equivalent of the drug never having existed in the first place.”

Such analyses, trade-offs, and allocations are in turn informed by humanistic insights. Drakeman explains, “Scientists and physicians can figure out whether a new drug actually extends lives, and mathematicians can calculate costs, but the STEM fields, by themselves, cannot provide a considered judgment about who should have those benefits and at what price.” The pursuit of STEM research at the expense of the humanities risks breaking the bond between the scientific and investment communities on the one hand, and the society they serve on the other.

Humanities research also has affected the quality of human life when it comes to the legal definition of rights. American society leaves this important work of definition largely to judges, but the ideas on which judges rely, and the constitutional doctrines they formulate, are inevitably influenced by humanities scholarship, especially in areas such as history and sociology. It wasn’t until the 1870s that the Supreme Court embraced the idea that the Constitution requires a “wall of separation between church and state,” as Jefferson wrote in his letter to the Danbury Baptists. I’m tempted to say “famous” letter, but the fact is it was not famous until Chief Justice Waite discovered it, essentially by accident, after following the advice of his Washington neighbor, the great proto-progressive historian George Bancroft. Drakeman concludes that “what the Court finds, when it looks ‘all the way down’ for the law, is what humanities scholars say is there.”

Humanities scholarship, particularly from the late nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries, has had long-term effects. One of Drakeman’s examples is that conservatives nowadays who favor any type of faith-based initiative have been placed on the defensive. But the defensive game they are forced to play, rather than being a dictate of the Constitution, is an artifact of very particular currents of historical scholarship, now more than a century old. Indeed, the Founders’ Constitution risks further distortion as the doctrine of “living constitutionalism” becomes an unrestricted license to use, and abuse, ever greater torrents of humanities scholarship. A little miseducation goes a long way.

Drakeman’s book makes clear that it is hard to make a convincing case for the humanities when academic scholarship seems unduly arcane, narrow, and tendentious. Unfortunately, it is in the nature of the academy to encourage scholarship that doesn’t resonate with the vast majority of citizens who are expected to support it. The solution, according to Drakeman, is a humanities scholarship of broader intellectual sympathies, cross-disciplinary orientations, and politically diverse viewpoints.

Drakeman thus rejects the arbitrary bureaucratic alignments that educational establishments both private and public have assiduously maintained, which have the effect of dividing and conquering the humanities. He also argues for a broader representation of fundamental moral-political preferences among humanities and social science scholars, in order to maintain and strengthen the bonds between the academic, scientific, legal, and investment communities, and between those communities and the general public. All four ultimately need the public’s support, and would best gain it if the public’s sensibilities and interests were more thoroughly represented. Alas, all of this is easier said than done. Perhaps the only thing harder than maintaining support for humanities scholarship in tight economic times is achieving sound humanities scholarship in any times.

In the last chapter, Drakeman alludes to one obvious consequence of academia’s insularity, and its obliviousness to its own usefulness: “If academic scholars do not provide what is needed, then my arguments for the financial support of the humanities will relate more directly to encouraging and sustaining the pursuit of scholarship outside the academy.” In fact, this is already happening, as humanities and social-science scholars who exhibit views more moderate or conservative than the academic mainstream look to outside organizations for the funding and dissemination of their ideas. We live in a world where at least some policy-makers and funders—would that there were more of them—think the humanities really are good for something, after all.

Writing with fluidity and grace, Drakeman accomplishes a lot in scarcely more than a hundred pages. Unfortunately, we probably can’t expect those responsible for the current assessment fad sweeping higher education to take much note of anything he says. But there is scarcely a thinking person who would not benefit from reading his book.

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