Stover: No Case for Humanities

“And yet, for now at least, the humanities are permitted to retain a much diminished place. They tell us the reason is that the humanities can prove useful in building skills or achieving justice, but they know and we know that, as a tool, the humanities are not fit for these purposes. At the same time, however, no one can admit that the old social function of the humanities—its creation of class distinction—lives on, if only for the shallow status demarcation of today’s elite. The most prestigious universities in the West are still those defined by their humanities legacy, which surrounds them with an aura of cultural standing that their professional purpose no longer justifies. The humanities continue to lend cachet to educational credentials, granting an elite status worth far more than any “marketable skills.” That is why every technical institute with higher aspirations has added humanities programs: accounting or law or engineering can be learned in many places, but courtoisie is passed along only in the university, and only through the humanities—and everyone knows it.

Meanwhile, the humanities provide cover for the economic engine that the contemporary university has become. A Regius Professor would prefer not to think of himself as an accreditor of the next generation of corporate consultants, hedge fund managers, and big tech CEOs—even though that is the most socially “relevant” and visible effect of his work today. It is the lingering presence of the humanities that allows the modern university to think better of itself, and to imagine itself to be above commercial or political vulgarity. This “case” for the humanities is implicit in every glossy flier produced by a university development office, but no one could state it without blushing.”


There Is No Case for the Humanities

By Stover, Justin .American Affairs Volume I, Number 4 (Winter 2017): 210–24.



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