Berube and Yglesias both have good things to say about the trend toward closing down humanities departments at otherwise-respectable universities. Since I don’t believe that the function of a university is purely the preparation of students for the workplace – there’s also the little matter of transmitting knowledge from generation to generation, and producing new knowledge – I’m mostly appalled by the trend. But as a defense of “the humanities” as an academic endeavor, Yglesias’s response – that being able to write well is a valuable skill – is defective. As the lawyers would say, it “assumes facts not in evidence”: that humanities instruction tends to foster that valuable skill.
Insofar as instruction in “the humanities” makes people better able to communicate in speech, writing, and visual images (which includes both the ability to speak and write well and produce good visual images and the ability to decode the speeches, writings, and visual images produced by others) of course it has “practical” (i.e., vocational) as well as intrinsic value.
But is it the case that majoring in English improves your reading and writing, other than the reading of fiction and the writing of papers for literature courses? I’d like to see the evidence. The fact that academic lit-crit is notoriously even worse-written than academic social science (which is saying a lot) puts the burden of proof on those who claim that humanities instruction tends to make its recipients write better rather than worse.
Yglesias assumes that humanities instruction that fails to improve communications skills must itself be unskillful. I doubt it. Humanities scholarship isn’t, mostly, focused on the pragmatics of communication; being the best freshman writing instructor is not, generally, a path to tenure at a prestige institution. (By the same token, economics professors don’t measure themselves by their students’ prudence in managing their personal finances.)
It’s possible to imagine a department that taught persuasive, descriptive, and analytical writing on a par with the current teaching of “creative” writing – meaning fiction, as if an essay by Orwell or Schelling didn’t display great creativity – but imagining it is about all you can do right now. You can’t visit it.