On “the humanities” and the skills of communication

Yes, communication is among the subjects of the humanities. And yes, the capacity to communicate clearly has great economic value. But no, instruction in the humanities does not, in general, aim at improving job-relevant communications skills.

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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

12 thoughts on “On “the humanities” and the skills of communication”

  1. The "transmitting knowledge" defense isn't much better supported than the "being able to write well" defense, is it?

  2. And who, Thomas, do you think has passed down our historical and philosophical and literary traditions, if not the humanists? When King James wanted an English translation of the Bible, he turned mostly to humanities professors.

  3. Sure, some students learn content, just as some learn to write well. On average though? I'm skeptical that the average humanities graduate at a big state university knows significantly more about our historical and philosophical and literary traditions than when she began.

    Not only do economics professors not measure themselves by their students’ prudence in managing their personal finances, they do not measure themselves by their students' mastery of economics. The same is true in the humanities.

    I've got nothing against the humanities or humanities professors. That's where I spent my time in school. But we shouldn't kid ourselves about the value of most higher education to the average student, or, for that matter, the value of one to-be-closed humanities department to a university.

  4. 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.

    How silly. Of course you can visit. 3203 SE Woodstock Blvd, Portland Oregon.

  5. We have a vast array of "business schools", built around social science faculties, among whom the top dogs are economists, and they train bright, ambitious young people in how to destroy the U.S. economy.

    I could imagine business schools — or schools of public administration and policy — built around humanities and the classical liberal arts instead of the social sciences. For would-be managers and administrators, rhetoric, logic, mathematics, history, ethics (!), and, yes, literature, could be effective professional training. I'm told that research indicates that effective executives in large companies think a lot like novelists, in observing and navigating corporate politics. It won't happen, of course, any more than any universities are likely to lay off their economics faculties, just because Economics has proven to be a corrupt profession, dedicated to a degenerative research program.

    It doesn't matter anyway. The U.S. has decided to dedicate what remains of its University system to credential our new feudal lords, while reducing the petite bourgeouisie to debt peonage. A plutonomic kleptocracy has no use for an educated citizenry.

  6. Yes you can visit it. I was strongly tempted to write just this post as a comment on Yglesias's post. However, Yglesias has some real life experience with a humanities major concentration which either did or didn't help him improve his writing skills. He also took "expository writing" when he was a freshman. That was a course on writing non-fiction. I know he took that course, because all Harvard undergraduates take that course with no exceptions at all. The teachers aren't professors tenured or otherwise. Harvard takes that course very seriously. It is generally well taught. It is not a huge lecture course. Students write and write and write and their writings are read and corrected.

    Then he concentrated in Philosophy. I know how many of his professors write and lecture. They are brilliant expositors. You can't agree with everything they write, because they disagree, but they write very very well. I don't know of an exception, although Rawls was clearly below average at exposition for the department. But still brilliant.

    Now I would tend to guess that Matt Yglesias would write brilliantly if his higher education consisted of being marooned on a desert Island. However, he has personal experience of efforts to teach him to write better. His impressions are, no doubt, atypical, but they aren't based on ignorance. The problem is that the Harvard Philosophy department isn't an average humanities department. Also it is as forbidden for a Harvard graduate to praise Harvard undergraduate eductation as it is for a serious moderate to note that Republicans lie all the time.

    My Harvard Philosophy GPA is B- so I can praise that concentration.

  7. "The teachers aren’t professors tenured or otherwise. Harvard takes that course very seriously."


  8. I wasn't a humanities major in college, but the best writing course I ever took was actually an intro philosophy class. The focus on precision (in terms of not being wordy for its own sake, for defining terminology clearly, for structuring arguments logically) dramatically helped me write more focused and readable documents. I was an "A" English student at an elite high school, and my first paper in the philosophy class was a C+: a definite wake-up call.

    College English, on the other hand, taught me nothing about writing, just literary academic theory.

    I suspect that the benefit of a humanities education has a lot to do with the type of humanities that are being studied.

  9. "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."

    There are some strange, very strange things going on here that are obvious to anyone who looks.

    I listen to a LOT of university talk/lecture podcasts, from a variety of universities across a variety of disciplines, and there are very strong patterns to the talks that are given. Some are interesting and fairly well-known, but irrelevant to us right now — for example physicists, believing (correctly, hah! [I'm a physicist] ) that they are the smartest person in the room, are very aggressive at interrupting speakers and asking questions, whether the topic is within their domain of expertise or something completely different (eg when Murray Gell-Mann addresses a group of physicists on his current interest, the deep history of language); economists behave likewise though not quite as aggressively.

    However the one thing I suspect few would have predicted is that scientists and engineers, in general, give extremely good talks. They speak fluently, their thought are organized, and they never read from notes. They understand the limitations of the medium — that a talk is for overview and explanation, while reading is for appreciation of the full details of the math and the argument.

    At the other end of the scale, English lecturers give truly astonishingly bad talks; the convention in English appears to be that delivering a talk consists of reading in a monotonic drone from an article written in dense stereotypical prose, with little discussion of what is being presented and why it's interesting. (And I say this not as someone with an axe to grind against English departments. Occasionally I find a speaker discussing a subject, like various types of literary criticism, or some common arc within a set of texts, in a way that suggests that truly find this interesting, and I find what they have to say truly fascinating. But these speakers are all too rare.

    In between we have the vast area that covers the humanities and the social scientists. What we find is that

    – historians are generally pretty damn good, unless they want to become amateur sociologists, in which case we get the droning reading of a dense jargon-laden article

    – likewise for classicists

    – sociologists, on the other hand, are often pretty good, even when in theory mode — they seem to actually have some interest in their theories and a desire to explain them to the world, rather than just going through the motions.

    I'm sad to say that the departments you'd expect to be polemical within the humanities, eg women's studies, african-american studies, jewish studies, generally are. I don't know if it's the laziness of preaching to the converted, but these talks pretty uniformly come across as having absolutely nothing to say that isn't already known to any intelligent human being, unless they're a long catalog of the methodological details of some study — the sort of thing that any scientist/engineer would omit, telling you at the end of the talk to read such and such an article if you want the details.

    So what can we conclude?

    Disappointingly, I'd have to say that for many in the humanities, what they appear to be taught is how to produce a very specific sort of paper that bears almost no relationship to the communication engaged in by most of the rest of the academy, along with zero skills in how to present the ideas in those papers vocally and in a limited amount of time.

    On the plus side, they do also learn how to interpret and dissect words, images and artifacts in a way that is substantially more sophisticated than the skills possessed by the rest of us, and when these skills are put to good use and communicated well the results can be enlightening and enthralling. Unfortunately, it's not clear whether the skills are rarely being put to good use, or if the findings are just never communicated to the outside world, but it's rare indeed to find these ideas communicated in a way that isn't completely awful. Consider, to take one example of all of what I'm saying, Foucault. The ideas he has to convey, in a book like Discipline and Punish, are really really interesting — interesting historically, politically, sociologically, psychologically. But my god, you have to have some really strong motivation to actually make it all the way through a Foucault work without wanting to stab your eyes out.

    I'd conclude by saying that this seems, to me, to be substantially self-inflicted by the humanities. I'm the last person to praise my fellow man, but I think there is a substantial fraction of the US (and world) population that really does appreciate learning and understanding, and supports money that is spent on this endeavor. All they ask in return is to be given some insight into what has been learned. Many disciplines understand this bargain and do their best to give back — we've long been awash in popular books, good, even very good, popular books on the hard sciences and engineering, on various aspects of history, on psychology and sociology. The political scientists are late to the party, but we're slowly seeing cross-over social science popular books that discuss issues like median voter models, voting methods and game theory.

    But most of the humanities seem utterly uninterested in this exercise, and, even worse, to portray an air of being above popularization — "what we say is so subtel and refined that a mere commoner could never understand it, no matter how we tried, so why make the effort"?

    If the classics profession, for example, is unwilling to let the outside world know what the new ideas are in their field over the past 30 years, is it any wonder that the outside world considers that the subject had been mined out by 1900, and so who cares if their department folds?

    If the public face of the Women's Studies, African-American Studies, and English departments is some refugee from the 60s waving a protest sign, rather than people talking about Malcolm Gladwell's new book on how critical theory helps us deconstruct advertising, textbooks, newspapers, and the entire social world around us, should we be surprised that no-one outside these departments cares much about saving them?

  10. Generally it seems like several people are saying that (a) the humanities as a set of disciplines and body of inherited culture are crucial in principle but (b) humanities academics have managed to massively screw it up in practice (especially since the post-everything theory turn of the 1980s). The real difference of opinion is mostly over whether our practical decisions about how to allocate scarce resources in the university should focus on the importance in principle or the catastrophe in fact. If only we could see a way to save the humanities disciplines from their own faculty.

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