The value of the humanities

The following commentary is provided by Professor Lydia Wevers, director of the Stout Research Centre at Victoria University of Wellington, and responds to an article published in the Dominion Post on Monday 25 July.

The humanities are so called for a very good reason—they are disciplines that investigate, explain and interpret the many ways in which we express what it means to be human, and probably began when the first neolithic audience expressed its opinion about cave painting. Science, in contrast, is a relatively recent set of methodological practises for thinking about the world we occupy and create, and was long preceded by what we now call philosophy.

Bob Brockie’s column of 25 July ‘Anything goes’ is not a scientific ideal’ misses the mark in a variety of ways and is, in itself, deeply offensive about the wide spectrum of disciplines which live under the banner ‘humanities’.

Brockie shows how out of date he is by reviling humanities scholars as ‘slaves to a fashionable cult’ which he defines as ‘postmodernism’. The web bristles with definitions of postmodernism, but the best one to use here is perhaps ‘postmodernism for dummies’ which notes that a ‘modern mindset claims to be logical and scientific’ and ‘anyone who questions accepted doctrine, be it religious, scientific or political, is discouraged and even ridiculed’. Sounds familiar. It has been the fashion for some years now to downgrade the value and importance of the humanities including trying to cram us, in all our colour and variety, into narrow and apparently ridiculous categories. The point of postmodernism, which is by the way a philosophical movement, is that it questions received truths and established conventions, and questioning, or meaning making, is what humanities scholars do superlatively well.

Brockie’s article featured cartoons of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, French philosophers whose thinking has challenged us in important ways. Foucault in his important work Discipline and Punish pointed out how social norms are internalised, which makes us into what he called ‘docile bodies’. We only have to think about how social media or advertising operates to see the force of his argument. And Derrida argued that meaning is never stable—even the ‘facts’ that Bob Brockie wants to lock in place are subject to interpretation and have to be seen in complicated context as the Dunedin study (which has studied over 1,000 people born between April 1972 and March 1973) has illustrated in a whole variety of ways. DNA, which is in Brockie’s terms, obviously a ‘fact’, is not the only, or even the most important, factor in how a child will turn out.

I have cribbed my title from a 2013 book by Helen Small, Professor of English Literature at Oxford and a graduate of Victoria University. She points out that arguments about the value of the humanities have been going on since Socrates, and are part of long traditions of liberal arts thinking. One of the things the humanities teaches us to do is think, and like science, it is curiosity driven. Who wants to live in world where historians do not question the received version of events, painters and writers and filmmakers do not imagine alternative worlds, and philosophers do not test the limits of meaning? No one can live by facts alone.