What Are the Humanities For?
By Willem B. Drees.
Cambridge University Press, 2021.
Hardcover, 202 pages, $34.99.
Reviewed by Jason Jewell.
Why do we need another book about the value of a humanities education? The short answer is that in an age of relentless focus on STEM education, we hear endless calls from both pundits and policymakers for the humanities to justify their place in the educational curriculum. Prior to World War II and the GI Bill, the humanities held pride of place in higher education. Relatively few students attended college, and those who did were either headed into one of the traditional professions (law, medicine, ministry) or were seeking preparation for roles in public life. Study of the humanities was considered essential to all these pursuits. The architects of higher education understood the fields of history, literature, philosophy, and others as the primary way to transmit knowledge and appreciation of what is good, true, and beautiful in our civilization.
The higher education landscape has some holdout institutions that still view the humanities in this way—long may they endure!—but in an era of mass college enrollment and spiraling costs of bachelor’s degrees, utilitarian and ideological concerns usually rule the day. The political left has largely rejected the notions of cultural literacy and a core curriculum. Because its sympathizers control most educational institutions in the West, the left has thus shifted the focus of humanities departments to advocacy for progressive attitudes and causes. In the discipline of history, for example, some traditional fields such as diplomatic and military history have all but disappeared in the last generation, and the number of courses covering anything before the modern era has decreased dramatically. Over the same period, fields that are usually defined by their practitioners in leftwing terms have grown exponentially, and a “presentist” bias attempts to wed the study of contemporary history with social and political activism. When the president of the American Historical Association, himself a man of the left, publicly questioned this trend recently, a Twitter mob of activist professors quickly extracted an apology from him.
For its part, the political right, recognizing that the humanities in most universities have become almost entirely a wholly owned subsidiary of the left, has often responded by arguing that the humanities as part of the educational curriculum should be reduced or eliminated. Meanwhile, students, recognizing that humanities degrees often do not offer a clear pathway to lucrative employment in the same way that applied or pre-professional degrees might, have begun abandoning the field. The number of students majoring in humanities disciplines has dropped precipitously in recent years, and reports regularly appear of colleges cutting humanities degree programs entirely.
Enter Dutch humanist Willem B. Drees, a professor emeritus of both Tilburg University and Leiden University in the Netherlands. Trained first in the natural sciences before becoming a philosopher and theologian, Drees is a prominent voice in the school of thought often described as “religious naturalism,” which claims to find religious meaning in the natural world while also rejecting the notion of a supernatural realm. His earlier books include Religion, Science and Naturalism (1996), Creation: From Nothing until Now (2002), and Religion and Science in Context: A Guide to the Debates (2009). He is also a past president of the European Society for the Study of Science and Theology and a member of the Royal Holland Society of Science and the Humanities. He thus writes from a perspective on the humanities most Americans have not encountered.
In What Are the Humanities For?, Drees argues that the humanities are still essential to twenty-first-century education. He makes his case by offering a reformulation of what the humanities are all about and then identifying several groups who he thinks need this course of study. He claims neither to harbor nostalgia for the university of yesteryear nor to indulge in the postmodern tendency to make the humanities the handmaid of activism. He thus attempts to thread the needle of contemporary discourse, clearly aware that he runs the risk of offending almost all parties.
Drees begins by offering in Chapter 1 a slightly clunky definition of “humanities”: “Humanities are academic disciplines in which humans seek understanding of human self-understandings and self-expressions, and of the ways in which humans thereby construct and experience the world they live in.” Perhaps a clearer way of stating this idea is that the humanities offer reflections on the ways human beings understand and express themselves. An important distinction between the humanities and other fields is that they study subjects, not just objects. A novel, poem, or philosophical dialogue is an object to be examined in various ways, but the ultimate goal in studying it is to gain insight into both its creator and ourselves. As Drees writes, humans are not merely agents, but also actors, and we study the humanities not merely to explain, but also to understand.
Drees elaborates upon his definition of the humanities for more than half the book. Chapter 2 stresses the importance of learning the language and context of others in order to approach real understanding of the ways in which they communicate. The point about language is not one that native speakers of English often need to consider, but for Drees, whose native language is Dutch, the point is crucial. He ruminates on the importance of a lingua franca that enables cross-cultural communication, but that also limits the depth of expression for non-native speakers. Drees also stresses the importance of hermeneutics, which he calls a “human necessity,” and includes brief discussions of figures like Friedrich Schleiermacher and Wilhelm Dilthey. Refreshingly, Drees upholds the standard of authorial intent when interpreting texts, although he allows that the meaning of a text may diverge from its significance to its readers or hearers.
In Chapter 3, Drees moves from the theme of understanding others to that of “self-involvement.” The humanities scholar studies a culture by interacting with its “insiders,” and those insiders wish to have their culture affirmed, not simply observed and described. The scholar must be willing to engage in self-reflection while making judgments about the culture he studies. Drees uses philosophy and theology as the case-study disciplines for applying this idea. This chapter is where his religious naturalism is most manifest; the discussion of theology as merely a study of human practices and beliefs will seem like thin gruel to orthodox believers.
In opposition to much of the postmodern academy, Drees puts forward the quest for objective knowledge as the standard for responsible scholarship. Judgments of value might be unavoidable, but the honest scholar must work to ensure that these are not driven by financial, political, or religious interest. Here again, Drees denies that the humanities scholar qua humanities scholar may resort to any sort of religious assertion. This stance is in some ways reminiscent of Irving Babbitt’s attempt to exclude the “religious level” of discourse from what properly belongs to the “human level.” In the same vein, Drees argues that whatever patterns in human life the scholar uncovers must be viewed as merely descriptive rather than prescriptive.
Having done his best to expunge the notion of humanities scholarship as either advocacy or as religious endeavor, Drees proceeds in the book’s second part to argue that humanities education is sorely needed in contemporary society. First and perhaps most obviously, professionals who deal with texts, e.g., judges and ministers, need to understand the principles of hermeneutics the humanities provide. Unfortunately, Drees asserts more than argues for the historical-critical method of textual interpretation and devotes most of this chapter to arguing against the principles of textualism and originalism in both law and religion.
Although Drees is a naturalist, he does not think that the natural sciences are sufficient to give us an understanding of ourselves. We are not merely material and biological. We are also cultural and technological beings who shape culture and technology even as we are shaped by them. Drees also argues we are planetary beings who interact with others around the world while also shaping the earth’s surface, oceans, and atmosphere. These additional dimensions of human existence, he writes, necessitate the study of the humanities to give us an accurate understanding of ourselves.
The argument of the book’s final chapter, “The Value of the Humanities,” flows logically from the case Drees has made in previous chapters. Here he offers several reasons why the humanities should be held in high esteem by society at large. To begin with, they produce “fundamental knowledge” about language. They are also “useful” in the sense valued by utilitarian culture. Language skills are important in business, and humanities research has other commercial applications in fields like communication and gaming. Drees uses his town of Leiden as an example of a place in which fields associated with the humanities (publishing, tourism, etc.) account for more of the economy than the science and tech companies there. Importantly in the twenty-first century, humanities education prepares people for jobs that do not yet exist by fostering the core competencies of reading, listening, writing, creativity, and more. Beyond commercial utility, the humanities have public value; they enrich culture and contribute to democratic government by fostering critical thinking and empathy. Drees makes the important point that future teachers, journalists, researchers, religious leaders, and civil servants all need training that goes beyond the immediate needs of their daily work life. A humanities education provides them with “a broader academic habitus and knowledge” that enables them to continue learning and adjusting in a changing world long after their formal education ends.
Perhaps Drees’s case for the humanities is the best that can be expected once the traditional goals of glorifying God and shaping the human soul for living the good life have been discarded. Drees seems to feel this tension himself in his discussion of some recent literature that the humanities have no real justification. His Enlightenment ethic of objectivity and scholarly distance has value and can lead to real knowledge. Following his prescriptions for the disciplines in the humanities would almost certainly lead to significant improvements over how things are done currently in most universities.
However, cut off from the religious and ethical roots of the Christian West, Drees’s program ultimately seems doomed to wither and die in the face of postmodern rejection of the framework that makes it possible. Drees concedes to the postmodernists the impossibility of certainty, but insists that objective knowledge is the goal, and that great things can still be built on foundations that are not completely solid. It seems unlikely that those wielding institutional power at the present time are likely to be swayed by this argument and trade what to them is a compelling moral vision of activism for Drees’s utilitarian benefits.
Similarly, traditionalists are unlikely to be moved by this flattened case for the humanities, despite its sound advocacy of intersubjectivity, authorial intent as a hermeneutic principle, and objective knowledge. Early in the book, Drees notes that our conception of the humanities seems uniquely Western. This fact by itself has led some scholars to turn away from the humanities in the spirit of anticolonialism. Unmoored from our civilization’s understanding of what is true, good, and beautiful, that Western ethic of self-criticism only destroys rather than builds.
What Are the Humanities For? caps a long career dedicated to finding a way for religion and the humanities to work within a naturalistic framework. Unfortunately for Drees, it looks like a failed project. The humanities in leftwing institutions will most likely continue to serve as a mere tool for activism. In other institutions where the transcendent is affirmed, hope remains that the humanities can continue to serve their traditional role as a vital means of preserving and transmitting the best of our civilization to the next generation.
Jason Jewell is a professor of humanities at Faulkner University, where he directs the Center for Great Books and Human Flourishing. He was a Wilbur Scholar at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal in 2019.
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