Wednesday 3 July 2024

Agnes Callard destroying the Humanities

Agnes Callard writes in the NYT that she teaches the Humanities but does not know what they are. This seems strange. The Humanities are 'those branches of knowledge that concern themselves with human beings and their culture or with analytic and critical methods of inquiry derived from an appreciation of human values and of the unique ability of the human spirit to express itself.' Thus the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle would certainly qualify. Presumably, that is what she teaches.

If a group of math students fails to learn the material, that might be because the teacher is not trying hard enough or because she has been inappropriately tasked with, for example, teaching calculus to toddlers. Supposing, however, that neither of these things is true — the teacher is passionately invested in teaching, and she has many suitable students — yet her students all fail the final exam, eventually we would be forced to say that she might not know math so well.

Alternatively, the exam may have been too hard or defective in some other manner. Furthermore, the teacher may know the wrong sort of math. In either case, corrective action is required unless the aim of the exam is to to only pick out those with rare talent.  

I believe that we humanists are in the position of this math teacher.

Any teacher could be in this position. Consider a driving instructor all of whose students fail. It may turn out that the teaching was given in England, where people drive on the left, but the exam was held on the Continent, where they drive on the right. Clearly, some correction should be made. People who are going to take a driving test on the Continent may need to be taught to drive there by local driving instructors. 

Are 'humanists' in America really in this sort of position? Perhaps. They have been trained to teach Plato and Aristotle. The Examiner asks questions about Rihanna and Taylor Swift. Students fail. They complain vociferously. In this case, the sensible thing would be to sack the Examiner. Humanists should be tested on the material they have been taught.  

We have been issuing a steady stream of defenses of the humanities for many decades now, but the crisis of the humanities only grows.

No. The thing was always useless. We may speak of continuous lysis rather than any particular moment of crisis. 

In the face of declining student interest and mounting political scrutiny, universities and colleges are increasingly putting humanities departments on the chopping block.

When were they not doing so? The plain fact is, the 'Humanities' only gained traction after they were bundled with Law, Medicine & Theology- the only three learned professions at one time. As the Natural and Social Sciences developed, the percentage of students devoting themselves exclusively to the Humanities was bound to fall. True, at one time, the ability to quote Sophocles, or adapt a line in Virgil to make it topical, could win the approval of fellow legislators or learned judges or other such important people who shared a particular elite paideia. But the rising tide of Democracy put paid to such folderol. 

We humanists keep on trying to teach people what the value of the humanities is,

That value is not very great. There is little point teaching your students that they will gain little benefit from the particular course of studies you are guiding them through. Why dwell on your own futility? The better course is to just concentrate on teaching your subject well rather than telling lies about how valuable it might be to complete the course. 

After all, even if we learn something useless, we may still benefit by having learned how to learn boring shite. There are many jobs which pay quite well which involve diligent application to matters which are duller than ditchwater. 

and people keep failing to learn our lessons.

Perhaps the subject is adversely selective. It attracts only those unable to learn how to learn anything at all.  

This suggests to me that humanists do not know the value of the thing they are trying to defend.

It is in their interest not to know it if that value is zero or negative. After all, it is better to live in the illusion of doing something worthwhile rather than continue to make a living doing something stupid or mischievous.  

We can spout pieties that sound inspiring to those already convinced of our cause, but so too can an ignorant math teacher “teach” math to those who already know it.

No. The ignorant math teacher would be found out even by students who aren't much better than her.  

As a humanist — someone who reads, teaches and researches primarily philosophy but also, on the side, novels and poems and plays and movies — I am prepared to come out and admit that I do not know what the value of the humanities is.

I don't teach. I do a bit of what might be called 'philosophic research'. I am always able to say what the value of this is. True, that value may be negative- it gives people a reason to reject and condemn vast quantities of verbiage of a useless or mischievous sort. On the other hand, there may be a positive value attached to particular texts or stories or concatenation of effects. 

I do not know whether the study of the humanities promotes democracy

It doesn't.  Nor does the growing of pony-tails or the cooking of cabbage. Why pretend otherwise?  

or improves your moral character

Agnes has studied the humanities. If she can't say it has improved her moral character, it probably hasn't. Perhaps it has no such power- at least for those constituted like Agnes 

or enriches your leisure time

i.e. do you read classical texts for pleasure or do you prefer to binge watch Netflix in your hours of leisure. 

or improves your critical thinking skills or increases your empathy.

more importantly, does it make your dick bigger or intensify orgasms?  

You might be surprised to learn that this bit of ignorance poses no obstacle to me in the classroom.

If ignorance were an obstacle to teaching, there would be no teachers.  

I suppose it would if I approached the teaching of Descartes as a matter of explaining why reading Descartes will make you a better person, but that is not how I teach Descartes, nor does any philosopher I know teach Descartes in that way.

Why teach Descartes? He is easy enough to understand. Moreover, Descartes, as a devout Christian, believed his system would promote both piety as well as a passionate devotion to mathematics and natural science. What is the harm in pointing this out?  

I am there to lay out the premises of his reasoning,

what about his motivation? Surely that has a bearing on the premises he uses? 

to explain some of the relevant concepts, to entertain questions and objections and to work through the arguments together with the students to see if they hold water. We are searching, trying to find the value that may be there.

You are failing if you don't examine Descartes's motivation. If you are teaching Mathematics, you do explain the motivation of a particular lemma. Why not do so in philosophy?  

I once asked the best teacher I ever had why she no longer taught her favorite novel, and she said that she stopped teaching a book when she found she was no longer curious about it.

She was bored with it. People try to delegate parts of their work which they no longer find challenging. So what?  

The humanistic spirit is, fundamentally, an inquisitive one.

Not in Callard's case. She ignores Descartes's motivations so as to merely go through the motions of teaching his system.  

In contrast, defenses of the humanities are not — and cannot be — conducted in an inquisitive spirit, because a defensive spirit is inimical to an inquisitive one.

Very true. Perry Mason is hired to defend a person charged with murder. Mason shows no curiosity about the case. He does not send Paul Drake to question other people who may have had a motive. This is because Mason has a defensive spirit and this is inimical to an inquisitive one.  

Defensiveness is, it must be admitted, an understandable response when budgets are being cut and the chopping block is brought out and you need to explain why you shouldn’t be on it.

Why wait till then? Why not be proactive? Oh. To ask or to seek answers for questions is to be inquisitive. But inquisitive people can't defend shit. That's why Churchill never showed any curiosity about how to get America to help him defend Britain from Hitler.  

It may be that humanists need to spend some of our time joining political battles, which, like all political battles, require their participants to pretend to know things that they do not actually know.

To win a political battle, you should be inquisitive as to whom you need to persuade or cajole or bribe or threaten so as to secure victory. Having a bunch of ignorant nutters on your side won't help. Indeed, the thing may be counterproductive.  

Nonetheless, we should be alert to the danger of becoming accustomed to putting our worst foot forward.

No. We should put our best foot forward. Also we should wipe our bums after shitting rather than be alert to the danger of becoming accustomed to having smelly, stinky, shit smeared bums.  

An atmosphere of urgency and calls for immediate action are hostile to fields of study like literature and philosophy that require a contemplative mood,

No. If your head is on fire, you need to call for immediate action. If you don't, you won't be able to regain a 'contemplative mood' so as to return to the study of literature or philosophy or, indeed, anything unrelated to the fact that your head is on fucking fire.  

and the pretense of knowing what one doesn’t actually know is hostile to forms of inquiry that demand an open mind.

No. Perry Mason may pretend he has in his hand an envelope containing proof that the witness was the true murderer. Mason can keep his mind open while his insinuating line of questioning convinces the witness that he had better tell the truth and throw himself upon the mercy of the Court.

Callard's mistake is to make arbitrary ipse dixit statements which are obviously false and to pretend that such statements are widely regarded as true in her discipline.  

A defensive mind-set also encourages politicization.

No. What encourages 'politicization' is the probability that it will alter outcomes.  

If the study of literature or philosophy helps to fight sexism and racism or to promote democracy and free speech

it doesn't. 

— and everyone agrees that sexism and racism are bad

they don't 

and democracy and free speech are good — then you have your answer as to why we shouldn’t cut funding for the study of literature or philosophy.

You also have your answer to why more and more workplaces should be converted to the study of that shite. If they have some magic property, why not ensure the poorest and stupidest get most of it? Displace it from the University to the Prisons and Brothels and Crack-houses. Callard and her ilk should be teaching in those shitholes.  

Politicization is a way of arming the humanities for its political battles, but it comes at an intellectual cost.

Not in Callard's case. She is as stupid as shit.  

Why are sexism and racism so bad?

Their existence reduces allocative efficiency and thus damages the economy and thus national security. 

Why is democracy so good?

It can be a relatively cheap way to solve collective action problems in a rational manner.  

Politicization silences these and other questions,

Econ answers them and shows how matters can be improved.  

whereas the function of the humanities is to raise them.

Anyone can raise them. Indeed, the thing is more effectively done by victims of sexism or racism who haven't squandered expensive educational opportunities.  

Defensiveness also threatens to infect our work as humanists.

Stupidity and ignorance killed the thing off first.  

A posture that we initially assumed for the purposes of confronting skeptics

a useless posture. If someone is skeptical about the value of poetry, a poet composes a poem which convinces them otherwise. It is no good saying 'poetry is vitally important in preventing Trump from becoming POTUS' because this simply isn't true.  

comes to restructure how we talk to our students,

you talk down to your students. They are stupid and ignorant. Why bother saying anything interesting to them? It would be pearls before swine. Just bang on about how the Humanities are America's last defense against Trump.  

how we construct our syllabuses and even how we read the texts we assign, which now must prove themselves useful toward whichever political goals currently receive the stamp of approval.

I suppose Callard is hedging her bets in this NYT article. Maybe, under a second Trump administration, Hillsdale type Colleges will pay much better than more Left of Center Universities.

Humanists are not alone in their ignorance about the purpose of their disciplines.

Callard is ignorant. I know plenty of Humanists who aren't.  

Mathematicians or economists or biologists might mutter something about practical applications of their work, but very few serious scholars confine their research to some narrow pragmatic agenda.

Many Humanists do so. That is why their books are worth reading.  

The difference between the humanists and the scientists is simply that scientists are under a lot less pressure to explain why they exist,

No. Scientists are under more pressure because there are higher fixed costs for Scientific research. However, Industry support is so strong for obviously utile fields that large numbers of scientists in particular research programs have no great anxieties about future funding.  

because the society at large believes itself to already have the answer to that question.

No. We don't know if String-Theory is a waste of time. Currently, it appears that it has useful applications. But there are plenty of very smart people who disagree.  

If physics were constantly out to justify itself, it would become politicized, too, and physicists would also start spouting pious platitudes about how physics enriches your life.

Something like that did happen with String Theory. People said 'even if the theory can't produce testable hypotheses, still it is beautiful in itself'. Now it appears that some practical applications are possible.  

I will admit that every time I hear of a classics department being cut, it hurts. I may not know why it is important to read Homer and Plato,

it isn't. But people read them anyway for the pleasure of the thing.  

but I do have a deep love for reading, teaching and pondering those texts.

I have a deep love of watching Netflix shows about Vampires and Werewolves. But I don't expect to get paid for it.  

That love is what I have to share with others, as well as the surprise and delight of finding that people thousands of years dead can be one’s partners in inquiry.

Only in the sense that Beyonce is my partner in sex when I wank. 

If at some point I am called on to defend the study of Homer or Descartes at some official hearing, I will do my best, but I do not deem it right to change my approach to what I study and teach in anticipation of that encounter.

Similarly, if Perry Mason is called on to defend Agnes Callard against a charge of murdering one or other of her husbands, he should not deem it right to change his lines of inquiry in anticipation of the court room battle. If he is currently investigating the case of the missing TV remote, he should continue to do so. It is sufficient that he turn up in Court at the appointed day and enter a plea of guilty with no mitigating circumstances. Callard is welcome to fire him and conduct her own defence if she wants to plead innocent.  

I will not run to battle; the battle will have to come to me.

I will continue to be a lazy sod. I don't give a shit about my students. If the College wants to shut down my Department let them come and tell me I'm sacked. I can't be arsed to be proactive in this matter. 

The task of humanists is to invite, to welcome, to entice, to excite, to engage.

No. That is the job of a hostess at a night club. Humanists are supposed to teach certain academic subjects to a certain standard.  

And when we let ourselves be ourselves, when we allow the humanistic spirit that animates us to flow out not only into our classrooms but also in our public-self presentation, we find we don’t need to defend or prove anything: We are irresistible.

You are stupid. Still, we understand that students in non-STEM subjects are even stupider. You are a sort of glorified child-minder telling them not to incessantly rape or stab each other and to hold off on eating their own shit till recess.  

Are the humanities valuable?

No. They are taught by cretins who were taught by cretins. Ecrasez l'infame!  

What is their value? These are good questions, they are worth asking, and if humanists don’t ask them, no one will.

No. The people who pay for the thing ask these questions. If they decide not to pay for it, the humanists will be fucked.  

But remember: No one can genuinely ask a question to which she thinks she already has the answer.

Nonsense! Anyone can ask such a question. Indeed, if there is a zero-knowledge proof you have the answer to an interesting question- e.g. how can an investor double her money in a month?- then it is very profitable to ask the question on every possible forum so as to drum up business. 

With the humanities, if you can point to empirical evidence that some particular objective is achieved- e.g. Humanities graduates score higher in linguistic skills- then there is a zero-knowledge proof that the thing 'adds value'. This is because no extra information is conveyed about how linguistic skills were boosted. But that is good enough. 

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