Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Humanities, Arts, Critical Thinking? There's an App for That

Image Source: S. Gross via Living Life Forward.

It has become popular to label the arts and humanities as useless subjects whose graduates will never find jobs and will become a burden on society. In an arrogant and wrong-headed article, The New Republic blamed non-science specialists for the decline of their own disciplines, asserting that they display a "philistine indifference to science," and a dated devotion to dead end Postmodernism:
The humanities are the domain in which the intrusion of science has produced the strongest recoil. Yet it is just that domain that would seem to be most in need of an infusion of new ideas. By most accounts, the humanities are in trouble. University programs are downsizing, the next generation of scholars is un- or underemployed, morale is sinking, students are staying away in droves. No thinking person should be indifferent to our society’s disinvestment from the humanities, which are indispensable to a civilized democracy.
Diagnoses of the malaise of the humanities rightly point to anti-intellectual trends in our culture and to the commercialization of our universities. But an honest appraisal would have to acknowledge that some of the damage is self-inflicted. The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness. And they have failed to define a progressive agenda. Several university presidents and provosts have lamented to me that when a scientist comes into their office, it’s to announce some exciting new research opportunity and demand the resources to pursue it. When a humanities scholar drops by, it’s to plead for respect for the way things have always been done.
The article also suggested that scientific principles should be applied to the humanities in order to help humanities specialists learn how to find 'real' and 'objective' truths in human affairs:
History nerds can adduce examples that support either answer, but that does not mean the questions are irresolvable. Political events are buffeted by many forces, so it’s possible that a given force is potent in general but submerged in a particular instance. With the advent of data science—the analysis of large, open-access data sets of numbers or text—signals can be extracted from the noise and debates in history and political science resolved more objectively
Right, that's just what we need: to equate algorithms with keys to objective truth and to associate Big Data crunching with solutions to human problems. One could just as easily suggest that Big Data crunching is a source of many human problems.

Calls to remove humanities include the arts and liberal arts, although the arts are deemed so insignificant as to be mentioned only rarely by pundits indulging this anti-cultural trend. One glance at the number of articles at the bottom of this post suggests that perhaps this is more than a trend - it is a new movement.

These calls are coming from both sides of the political fence, along with people working in two sectors: high tech and finance. These two sectors are presently climbing to a pinnacle of power. Yet they arguably were the source of much distress over the past few years. They, along with their political guardians, have failed in their core assumptions about economic productivity, while focusing overly on marketing and consumption. And that is only the start of what is wrong with them. As the failures of these sectors have become more obvious, their commentators have gone on the offensive against the only preserves in society which offer any genuine alternative voice. What they cannot commandeer, they attack.

The frightening message to young students is, "Join the technocracy, or starve." If you can't be an engineer, a technocrat, a financial drone, or a marketer, what good are you? An article from Forbes on the 10 "least valuable" degrees reads like a checklist for building an unhealthy, plugged in, spiritually impoverished and blindly unconscious police state, with no connection to the past, no understanding of cultural context, and no way of recognizing or combating political oppression. The 10 "worst" college majors listed are:  (1) Anthropology and Archaeology; (2) Film, Video and Photographic Arts; (3) Fine Arts; (4) Philosophy and Religious Studies; (5) Liberal Arts; (6) Music; (7) Physical Fitness and Parks Recreation; (8) Commercial Art and Graphic Design; (9) History; (10) English Language and Literature.

This is a serious attack on arts and humanities disciplines. This is not about the so-called realities of economics. It is not about common sense. It is not about what is wrong with teaching in the arts and humanities. It is not even about the fact that the arts and humanities supposedly cultivate navel-gazing, lazy hipsters.

This trend against the arts and humanities is a vanguard bid for control of the establishment, from two sectors which (given their records so far) do not deserve even to make a bid for control at all. It is a battle for the right to communicate, to broadcast dominant social messages and to shape cultural values. It is a battle over the immense profits to be won through technologically-driven social control. It stems (no pun intended) from a larger awareness that politics, government and the economy are on the verge of massive transformation via technological advancements. Normally, the humanities would dominate this transformation because the change is occurring in the area of communications. Instead, people who work in these areas are being devalued, ignored, criminalized. The move to channel undergraduates away from these subjects reveals a need to diminish the numbers of those who understand particular branches of knowledge. It would be foolish and dangerous to see this as simple philistinism.

In the wake of the Great Recession and with the slow birth of a surveillance state, suddenly there are calls for the erasure of subjects which foster critical thinking of human behaviour, and meaningful understanding of grey areas in human affairs? Because they don't pay in the current economy? Well, what does pay in the current economy? Superhighways through archaeological sites and virgin rain forests? Global contracts to build nuclear power plants, based on faulty engineering? Construction bubbles in China which have built gigantic, empty cities? Giant dams to control water resources for one country at the expense of security in an entire region? Facial recognition software which puts the 'face' into Facebook? Where is the common sense in any of these projects? The argument against the arts and humanities reflects the consolidation of power away from, and isolating attack upon, any part of global culture that has not already been safely packaged, industrialized, appropriated and monopolized in the service of the fledgeling technocracy.

Anti-humanities pundits argue that humanities specialists only have themselves to blame. The latter don't deliver value for money. They are mired in Postmodernism. They are politically skewed. They dispensed with standards. Nitty gritty problems in the humanities and arts fields are being used by critics to obscure much larger developments here: a failed economy and an incipient surveillance society. The Great Recession did not transpire because there are Philosophy majors in the world. If anything, we need more Philosophy majors: it would be nice if we still had people around who could distinguish fact from fiction in the Information Age.

The Wall Street Journal recently asked: "Who Ruined the Humanities?" and decided it was the academics in the humanities at the universities. The humanities should be enjoyed, of course, WSJ opined, but they should not be formal subjects of study; the University of Life is much better for learning and describing fundamental truths about human nature:
The remarkably insignificant fact that, a half-century ago, 14% of the undergraduate population majored in the humanities (mostly in literature, but also in art, philosophy, history, classics and religion) as opposed to 7% today has given rise to grave reflections on the nature and purpose of an education in the liberal arts.
Such ruminations always come to the same conclusion: We are told that the lack of a formal education, mostly in literature, leads to numerous pernicious personal conditions, such as the inability to think critically, to write clearly, to empathize with other people, to be curious about other people and places, to engage with great literature after graduation, to recognize truth, beauty and goodness.
These solemn anxieties are grand, lofty, civic-minded, admirably virtuous and virtuously admirable. They are also a sentimental fantasy. ...

I am not making a brief against reading the classics of Western literature. Far from it. I am against taking these startling epiphanies of the irrational, unspoken, unthought-of side of human life into the college classroom and turning them into the bland exercises in competition, hierarchy and information-accumulation that are these works' mortal enemies.
The notion that great literature can help you with reading and thinking clearly is also a chimera. One page of Henry James's clotted involutions or D.H. Lawrence's throbbing verbal repetitions will disabuse you of any conception of literature's value as a rhetorical model. Rather, the literary masterworks of Western civilization demonstrate the limitations of so-called clear-thinking. They present their meanings in patchwork-clouds of associations, intuitions, impressions. There are sonnets by Shakespeare that no living person can understand. The capacity to transfix you with their language while hiding their meaning in folds of mind-altering imagery is their rare quality.
The literary classics are a haven for that part of us that broods over mortal bewilderments, over suffering and death and fleeting happiness. They are a refuge for our secret self that wishes to contemplate the precious singularity of our physical world, that seeks out the expression of feelings too prismatic for rational articulation. They are places of quiet, useless stillness in a world that despises any activity that is not profitable or productive. ...
In Moby-Dick, Melville's narrator, Ishmael, declares that "a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard." Soon, if all goes well and literature at last disappears from the undergraduate curriculum—my fingers are crossed—increasing numbers of people will be able to say that reading the literary masterworks of the past outside the college classroom, simply in the course of living, was, in fact, their college classroom.
Meanwhile, the NYT published an article on this topic, "The Decline and Fall of the English Major," which was more wistful, as though author was saying: yes, it was great while it lasted, wasn't it? Too bad the humanities became dry, ideological, derivative and institutionalized and lost their way. The conclusion still gently expects that the humanities cannot convey their most valuable lessons within the college environment:
There is a certain literal-mindedness in the recent shift away from the humanities. It suggests a number of things. One, the rush to make education pay off presupposes that only the most immediately applicable skills are worth acquiring (though that doesn’t explain the current popularity of political science). Two, the humanities often do a bad job of explaining why the humanities matter. And three, the humanities often do a bad job of teaching the humanities. You don’t have to choose only one of these explanations. All three apply.
What many undergraduates do not know — and what so many of their professors have been unable to tell them — is how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature.
Maybe it takes some living to find out this truth. Whenever I teach older students, whether they’re undergraduates, graduate students or junior faculty, I find a vivid, pressing sense of how much they need the skill they didn’t acquire earlier in life. They don’t call that skill the humanities. They don’t call it literature. They call it writing — the ability to distribute their thinking in the kinds of sentences that have a merit, even a literary merit, of their own.
Writing well used to be a fundamental principle of the humanities, as essential as the knowledge of mathematics and statistics in the sciences. But writing well isn’t merely a utilitarian skill. It is about developing a rational grace and energy in your conversation with the world around you.
No one has found a way to put a dollar sign on this kind of literacy, and I doubt anyone ever will. But everyone who possesses it — no matter how or when it was acquired — knows that it is a rare and precious inheritance.
There is some conflation here between the overall value of the humanities in society and their position in universities as prerequisite programs for finding a useful job that pays well. I would maintain that an attack on the recognized status of the latter still constitutes an attack on the former. The Chronicle of Higher Education lamented this trend in an article, "Don't Caricature the Humanities," which concluded:
Contrary to ... [the] insinuation that the forms of reasoning specific to the humanities belong, with religion, to the superseded intellectual past, they are in fact fundamentally modern and secular disciplines based on ideals of disinterested inquiry and reasoned dialogue, ideals now under threat from an economic totalism that is indeed philistine, indifferent to the knowledge cultivated in the humanities and determined to turn science into a handmaiden of capitalist enterprise. While the humanities may well face extinction in a future dominated by this agenda, the sciences may thrive only at the cost of their soul.
Oh well. How much does a soul cost these days? Maybe the price is falling, just like bond futures. The Great Recession should have inspired second thoughts, caution, and questions about inequality, vanity, political agendas and communal well-being. When Occupy fizzled out, it became clear that we have been left only with a rump of pre-2008 thinking. The financial sphere has subsisted on handouts, mesmerized by its own reflection. Watching Bloomberg financial news is a time warp lesson: the financial sector has in no way seriously questioned the blind greed displayed prior to 2008 and seeks merely to return to 'normal' conditions. There is still serious money being made, but the entire structure of the post-war economy has changed. Economic analysts do not acknowledge the scope or meaning of that change, which rests on the gutting of the middle class right at the moment when the tech sector begins to mobilize social control.

The anti-humanities movement comes from the very economic sector which has catastrophically failed and seeks now to regroup on pre-Recession grounds of authority. This sector would stamp out the disciplines which engage with humility, restraint, creativity and self-reflection. That economic sector is also the ironic source of debasement of the humanities, for which the humanities are facing criticism from said economic sector; economic and management principles inspired demands in academia for quantification and commodification of intellectual output, regardless of quality or considered value of that output.

Behind the speculative bubbles which sparked the Great Recession, there is a cryptic and poorly understood connection between the science and tech sectors and the faltering economy. Partly, this relates to the productive capacity of developed and developing societies outstripping traditional means of production. Some of this connection relates to an exploitative mentality arising through technical globalization and the collapse of hard-fought workplace and social norms, wherein employers and employees were once expected to treat each other with professional standards of decency. Current trends see a commodification and mass marketing of the arts, along with the absorption of any creative venture by corporations. There are the signs that we have forgotten what really makes an economy productive and have instead artificially sustained living standards through sickening levels of borrowing against an impoverished future.

As I said in this post, it is hard to imagine a more misguided or foolish way of understanding the limping Millennial economy:
[At] the turn of a Millennium, we see history and architecture, down at the bottom. And at the very time when the technological revolution has caused global literacy and written communication to explode at a scale never before seen in human history, all the major disciplines which teach written expression and analysis are relegated to the bottom of the employment and pay scales? And in a global economy, the study of foreign languages, rhetoric and grammar also have no prospects? Really? Did politicians, economists, jobs analysts, bankers and financiers learn nothing in 2008? Why are they still allowed to control the balance of power in our societies?
Rather than learn how to think from studying history, art, music or great works of literature, the Internet points the direction in which the The New Republic would have us proceed. Take idiotic alternatives like Luminosity, which peddles a 'brain-training' course in so-called 'neuro-plasticity.'

"I do it to stay sharp," chirps the hipster chick (actress Emily Greco) in the annoying Luminosity Youtube ad, "I take care of my body, but [insert momentary puzzled expression and nose wrinkle] it's harder to work out my brain. Luminosity is based on neuroscience. And it just seems like games, but it's serious brain-training. I am happier with my brain, definitely." The Luminosity announcer interjects: "Any brain can get better, and Luminosity dot com can help. It's like a personal trainer for your brain, improving your performance with the science of neuro-plasticity, but in a way that just feels like games." Luminosity's motto is: "Discover what your brain can do."

Why would you read a book to 'train your brain' when you can do little computer puzzles instead? It's so literal-minded. It's one step above evaluating animal intelligence by assessing how animals work with human tools and gadgets. Are we even conscious of how computers have come to dominate our way of thinking? Humans are as arrogant about the supremacy of their own intelligence as they are certain that they are in control of it. This arrogance is a huge blind spot. Are we controlling our gadgets, or our gadgets controlling us?

Video Source: Luminosity via Youtube

Then there is rebutr, the new critical thinking browser app that tells you whether a Web page is posting disputed material (rather than doing the research and figuring it out for yourself):
rbutr is a browser plugin which tells you whenever the page you are looking at has been disputed elsewhere on the net. More importantly than just providing people with opposing perspectives, it incorporates critical analysis and critical thinking in to our everyday experience of the web. So with rbutr, the internet will give people a much more comprehensive view of complex issues, and will teach them how to critically consume the information they encounter.
What the arts and humanities teach are ways to understand those aspects of ourselves which cannot be easily quantified or tested.  When people live unexamined lives and do not know how to grasp the world's mysteries beyond the most obvious aspects of those mysteries, we are left with a fragile, credulous society which too easily falls prey to anti-democratic modes of thought.

One murky area in that regard is the current lack of social consensus, evident in the divided political landscape where there is no practical middle ground. In a culture which fears any social consensus as a source of oppression, there can be no general recognition of the common good and oppression will actually thrive. Even when social consensus is reached online over some outrage, that consensus invariably rests on an impulsive, arbitrary, superficial collective grasp of the facts. Take the latest online example: viral support on Twitter for an autistic boy who was threatened with euthanasia in a letter written by a mother in Newcastle, Ontario, Canada. You can read the horrific, disgusting letter here. Out of hundreds of predictable (and well-meaning) public responses to this story, only one commenter on this story expressed a doubt: "Having had a chance to read this, it makes me think ... [the writer] is likely a teenage kid living in the area. I am almost 100% certain this is not another mother."

Big Data and global communications brought a flood of information, but they did not teach people how to discern the truth.  They did not teach critical thinking or effective communication. They did not teach logic, linguistic analysis, awareness of historical context, or research techniques to tech designers who are making software tools. They did not teach ethics or provide a moral background to those producing the news or mass media. They did not teach engineers to consider eventualities well beyond the confines of expected practice. Nor do Big Data and global communications remind us of what makes us human. Instead, they pull us further and further away from our humanity.

Related articles:
  • Josh Writes a Blog: The Theatre Degree; or, how to intentionally starve yourself with $40,000 in student loans (June 2008)
  • Xtra Normal: satire: So You want to Get a PhD in the Humanities? (October 2010)
  • The Economist: Doctoral degrees: The disposable academic (16 December 2010)
  • Learn English or Starve: Value of your degree in today's world (3 November 2011)
  • Forbes: The 10 Worst College Majors (11 October 2012)
  • Thought Catalog: The Case for Removing (Almost) All Liberal Arts from College (19 February 2013)
  • Time: Who Needs Philosophy? Colleges Defend the Humanities Despite High Costs, Dim Job Prospects (7 March 2013)
  • Wall Street Journal: Are Humanities Degrees Doomed? (6 June 2013)
  • Education Stormfront: What Use are the Humanities? (10 June 2013)
  • Pacific Standard: Don't Be Afraid of Going to Graduate School in the Humanities (13 June 2013)
  • Scientific American: Why Study Humanities? What I Tell Engineering Freshmen (20 June 2013)
  • Business Insider: The war against humanities (26 June 2013)
  • Business Insider: 11 Reasons to Ignore the Haters and Major in the Humanities (27 June 2013)
  • NYT: The Humanities in Crisis? Not at Most Schools (3 July 2013)
  • HuffPo: Don't Abandon Classics in Order to Get a Good Job, Says Oxford (11 July 2013)
  • Jerusalem Post: Terra Incognita: Decline of the humanities: Don't believe it (16 July 2013)
  • The Independent: Don't neglect the importance of the humanities (22 July 2013)
  • Washington Post: We don't need more humanities majors (30 July 2013)
  • American Academy of Arts and Sciences: The Heart of the Matter: Humanities and Social Sciences report for the US Government (2013) 
  • The Chronicle of Higher Education: The Highly Useful Crisis in the Humanities (26 August 2013)
  • The Chronicle of Higher Education: Medical Schools Prepare Students to Navigate a Flood of Biodata (26 August 2013)


  1. Where is the dialogue that your posts deserve? This is a terribly important subject that you present, well worked up and sourced. I, for one, am going to save this post to break down into chunks that I can react to and reason out ideas, if not answers.

    A side note, I just watched a batch of George Carlin monologues, BRILLiant monologues, that inspire the courage to see through 'the heart of the matter' and with critical thinking recognize the bullshit that is daily cast into our path, keeping our society from a smooth journey. I encourage people to watch and listen to him. Be inspired by him. He is 'a prophet' :>)

    Thanks Tam B!

  2. I agree with THB - your articles deserve more exposure and more dialogue! This one nails an important contemporary theme as does a previous article: http://historiesofthingstocome.blogspot.com/2013/08/where-are-we-going-no-really-where-are.html.

    Perhaps you should be a contributor to a more public venue... Big Think? In any case, really phenomenal articles. They, uh, sort of make you stop & think. ;-)

    PS Carlin was and is a national treasure.

  3. Thanks Thom, TYVM Dia! All I can say is, I have a lot of lurkers. Quiet types. LOL.

  4. I'm definitely a lurker. You have the greatest blog on the internet.

    I stumbled upon Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy the other day while I was browsing titles on librivox.org -- the all-volunteer-produced audiobook repository -- and I hear some shared resonances... Most pointedly in that excerpt from The Chronicle of Higher Education. Which then reminded me that that makes perfect sense, because Culture and Anarchy would be a fundamental text to the history of the discussion of this very topic--which in turn reemphasizes the importance of a robust foundation in the humanities. So much reading, so much happening between so many ephemeral lines... I fear I have infinite catching-up to do, but the buzz I get from navigating these waters is so rewarding. As is your exceptional blog, day in and day out.

    I am also very gratified by your critique of Luminosity, which has [insert momentary puzzled expression and nose wrinkle] really skeezed me out lately with its premise, tone, and frequency on the airwaves. You are a lighthouse, sir.

    1. Thanks Miller! Very kind of you to say. I appreciate it very much. I had a look at librivox - a great site! Arnold - I read /Culture and Anarchy/ a long, long time ago - I think it is time to have another look (or listen)!