A quandary resolved or restated?

Liam Julian

The humanities are under attack, writes Nicholas Dames in the latest N+1. What he means, really, is that campus humanities departments are under attack, derided by the masses as comfortable homes for elitist windbags and poked and prodded by college administrators and public officials, who hope either to reshape the departments in ways?that will make them more amenable to economic realities or to withhold money from them, in effect starving them and their tweedy, Marxist denizens into submission, dispersing the rogues hither and yon so that no longer will they draw a paycheck for filling students' minds with nonsense. Dames reviews three ?manifestos,? written, he says, by professors who have sensed that the winds have shifted, that humanities departments can no longer remain aloof, above the fray, and so have plunged in, put pen to paper, to produce defenses of their profession?booklets as barricades.

First up is Martha Nussbaum's Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. This is, Dames seems to suggest, a confused book, at once asserting the humanities' independence from quotidian concerns of supply and demand while also pointing out that the very skills the humanities impart are those for which, Nussbaum notes,??modern pluralistic democracies surrounded by a powerful global marketplace? most thirst. ?First of all,??she writes, ?we can report that, even if we were just aiming at economic success, leading corporate executives understand very well the importance of creating a corporate culture in which critical voices are not silenced, a culture of both individuality and accountability . . . .? Leave aside whether Nussbaum's rather idealistic circumstances, the CEO as philosopher king, are more than rarely realized; she justifies or at least bolsters the humanities by appealing to their utility to enterprises of profit, which is bizarre for a book titled Not for Profit. If the humanities can stand alone as an a priori good they should do so. In fact, one could argue, and many have, that the humanities are fundamentally opposed to economic systems because they bring us away from comparatively banal exchange and toward a more inquisitive state in which we act not as producers and consumers but as questioners. Dames asks, ?Do the humanities teach ?skills,' or do they lead us to critique the instrumentality of skills-as-such? Do they trouble our relation to economic activity, or do they equip us to be ideal technocratic employees?? Nussbaum may have made no mistake in her presentation, though. She may have structured her book as an either/or precisely because it is a manifesto whose primary purpose is not to construct elaborate, perfect pyramids of argument but to catalyze action?action that will come from those for whom economics is fundamental. And yet, that title. ?It is, I think, entirely possible that Nussbaum is being remarkably canny,? Dames writes. ?It is also possible that she has restated, rather than resolved, the contemporary quandary of humanists.?

?Liam Julian, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow ?

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