Are the humanities worth studying? Art, literature, and philosophy don’t do anything. They simply are

In the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde wrote: “All art is quite useless.” Wilde meant this not in a disparaging way but rather as a compliment to all things beautiful. He didn’t want to assign any utility to something that is elusive and that cannot be possessed. Can we say the same thing about learning and the Humanities? Is learning “useless” in the same way that art is “useless?” Education and learning, of course, are not the same as a painting or a musical composition. But just like in Wilde’s view on art, we ought to ask whether we can really take a utilitarian approach when it comes to understanding and defining the Humanities.

As a teacher who has taught both high school and college English, I would always get that inevitable question from students: “Why do we have to read this?” The question itself reveals a youthful naiveté and impatience, but on a deeper level, it exemplifies many issues that we are dealing with today when it comes to the liberal arts.

Indeed, why read literature or philosophy? This question has been repeatedly asked and explored and rightfully so. Higher education is inextricably connected to the cost of education. Students are making “an investment,” and it would follow that they (or their parents) are expecting something in return.

At the same time, another problem with the Humanities is that many American universities are not teaching great and big ideas but rather ideology. Ideology is a coercion of truth and as Hannah Arendt points out in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “ideologues are not interested in the miracle of being.” Instead, ideological theories are dominating the study of the Humanities and producing activists instead of learned people.

These two very important aspects—economical and ideological—are what lead many commentators to question whether the Humanities are “useful?” Whatever the case may be, here I am not interested in those two issues. Rather, I am interested in a completely different level of the Humanities, a level that has nothing to do with higher education or the state of the university. I am simply interested in learning itself.

No matter how many times we ask, “Why study the Humanities?,” we won’t get a thoroughly satisfying response. To ask such a thing is to do literature, philosophy, or art a great disservice. Trying to squeeze the utility out of reading a novel is like trying to squeeze juice out of a dried-up lemon. The Humanities cannot be reduced to a monetary or even a moral value.

One could argue that studying the Humanities makes a human being good and happy. This may be true, but one can be entirely illiterate and still be both good and happy. To assign an ethical value—that awful question of “what is the moral of the story?”—is also meaningless.

Similarly, literature or philosophy should not be treated in a therapeutic way because we are shaping a piece of art to fit our own existential mold and our worldview. This is not to deny that a reader can have an affinity with a character in a novel or that he can see himself in it. But great books are not therapists, even if they may at times cure some ailments of the soul. If this result does occur, it is because we have allowed the text to unfold right before our eyes and mind, and it has spoken to us on a deeper level. But such a relation can’t be expected or forced.

Perhaps it’s in our nature to look for utility in everything we encounter. In her book Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor reflected upon a particular human quality: the insistence to know the exact meaning of the ineffable. Referring in particular to literature, she writes:

The fact is, people don’t know what they are expected to do with a novel, believing, as many do, that art must be utilitarian, that it must do something, rather than be something. Their eyes have not been opened to what fiction is, and they are like the blind men who went to visit the elephant—each feels a different part and comes away with a different impression.

The distinction between being and doing is crucial in what O’Connor is establishing, and it points to a problem that somehow we expect something from art. Expectation, in this case, lacks gratitude for the thing itself. Reading a novel is not like taking a prescription medication: “Take twice daily and you will begin to feel better.” The inescapable problem is that reading literature or philosophy rarely leaves one feeling better… and nobody knew this better than O’Connor.

Just as writing fiction for O’Connor was a “habit of being,” so should reading be for us. When reading philosophy or literature, when taking the time to look at a painting, or listen to music, we can’t anticipate a certain result. In order to absorb new knowledge and internalize it, we have to exercise great patience and discipline. By constantly wondering and worrying what the purpose and aim of learning is, we exercise neither patience nor discipline; rather, we make an attempt at possessing the mystery of being that is presented to us.

As a writer, O’Connor was concerned with what she called “the mystery that is lived.” To live means to relate to other human beings and to recognize the whole picture of humanity—the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful. Just as we can’t expect other people to have utility for us, particularly people whom we love, we also can’t expect art or learning to have an aim.

The truth is, we cannot engage in any kind of doing without first acknowledging the possibility of being. What this means is that our entire existence is based on an encounter—whether it involves other human beings, nature, or books. When we understand (even on a basic level) that we ought to engage the entirety of our being into every act that we do, be it small or big, only then can we enter into the aspect of life that is much deeper than superficial categories that are always appearing before us. Otherwise, we are always living on the periphery of what could be.

Ideally, the liberal arts are also based on an encounter. Make no mistake—we are forming our judgments, positions, and conclusions even when we engage in a dialogue. But this relation is not just about ideas. It is about the entirety of the person. While ideology confines a human being into a set of superficial categories, true learning offers freedom of the mind. While ideology denies being, true learning affirms the possibility of being. This is what a constant movement toward the “yes of life” looks like: by recognizing the dignity of another human being, we seek not to ridicule and decrease the other person, but to respect the person and increase knowledge and the evolution of thought. For this reason, the liberal arts and learning ought to be exercises in both the contemplative and active life. Intellectual life, as a whole, cannot reach its fullness and potential without that exercise.

It is very important to take a dialogic approach in our encounter with the Humanities. This means that we have to let literature or philosophy or art speak for itself. Whether one is trying to place a monetary value on literature, art, or philosophy, or to assault them with various ideologies and theories, both intentions annihilate the wonder of being. Ultimately, on a deeper level, we should not be asking whether the Humanities are worth studying. Art, literature, and philosophy don’t do anything. They simply are.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThe Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility.

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