Friday, March 20, 2009

The Humanities and the Financial Crisis

Via InTheMiddle, there's this article in today's Chronicle of Higher Education by the director of the National Humanities Center. Allow me to quote some:

Why should society support the humanities when so many people are suffering from the effects of the economic crisis? What claim do the humanities, or scholarship generally, have on increasingly limited resources? Shouldn't such pursuits be considered luxuries at a time when we should be focusing on essentials...?

The humanities are, if not the top priority right now, at least one of the areas that must be recognized as crucial, and supported accordingly. The present crisis does not eclipse the humanities but rather reveals the need for the skills, dispositions, and resources that the humanities, and only the humanities, cultivate....

I am struck by the recurrence of two statements in the numerous analyses I've read: "It is all so obvious in retrospect," and "Our models failed to predict this." Put those two together, and it becomes clear that the most sophisticated tools developed to analyze and predict movements in the economy failed spectacularly to grasp some very large, crucial, and — in retrospect — fully visible facts....

What was missing, some analysts have concluded, was a deeper understanding of the relationship between value and confidence. It was presumed that the value of, say, houses was always going to rise. Beneath that assumption was another, that the value had a certain solidity, like the house itself. However, as Paul S. Willen, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, recently noted, "The price of an asset, like a house or a stock, reflects not only your beliefs about the future, but you're also betting on other people's beliefs." He went on, "It's these hierarchies of beliefs — these behavioral factors — that are so hard to model...."

So our models failed not because they were imprecise but because they were too precise, too neat and crisp to take in the imaginative and social nature of value. Nor did they take in the fully human character of the behavior of lenders, borrowers, analysts, shareholders, or traders, all of whom were driven by largely unconscious and partly irrational beliefs, including the simple desire for social approval, even as they were persuaded of their own powers of analysis and of the underlying "rationality" or "efficiency" of the market....

Well, consider this: When we read a novel, watch a play or a film, listen to a concerto, or read a historical narrative, we are not just attending to the moment but forming expectations about what will come next. Surprise endings surprise only because they do not conform to our expectations.... Being able to engage in such anticipation is an essential part of general intelligence, and developing that ability is one of the primary goals of teaching in the humanities....

Our material lives are sustained by our belief in... fictions, and when we stop believing — as we now have [in our financial system], temporarily — we see revealed the immaterial foundations of the real world. When, a generation ago, a few "postmodern" theorists began to talk about the fictional character of reality, they were laughed at by those who considered themselves hardheaded realists; nobody... is laughing now.

So why support the humanities? The answer is... that the humanities elicit and exercise ways of thinking that help us navigate the world we live in. For my money, that's about as essential as it gets.

My only qualm here is that the article is too confrontational, even manichean, for my taste. Yeah, economists/ social scientists don't have all the answers. Yeah, those in the Humanities do have some. But, speaking as a scholar in the Humanities myself, they do have some answers and we don't have them all. While I agree that we ought strenously to defend the value of the Humanities, we ought not be so doctrinaire in our thinking that we succumb to that which we so deplore -- rigid, disciplinary thinking that excludes perspectives categorically. We can reject bad ideas while realizing that the people behind those ideas might have good ones down the road.

6 comments:

Steve Muhlberger said...

Somehow I can't get excited about defending the humanities. For those who do not value them, no argument is sufficient. People tend to pick their arguments on this subject to back up their pre-existing opinions.

On a related matter, I can remember (late 80s - early 90s)when the press, general and professional, was full of predictions that universities would shrink because there weren't going to be enough students to fill existing places; thus there would be no increase in funding. Then after a while, there were stories floated that predicted a shortage of university faculty in Canada, which would make university growth impossible, and therefore there would be no increase in funding.

Neither prediction for any resemblance to demographic reality, but the message was clear anyway: there would be no increase in funding -- though in fact, eventually there was.

Matthew Gabriele said...

Steve, I'll grant you that there are some people's minds that you just can't change. But there are some, perhaps, who just don't know how the Humanities (can) work in today's world. For example, our undergraduates. To my mind, these people need to be presented with a vigorous defense of what we do and why we do it.

Jonathan Jarrett said...

I think really that the point is here that social sciences aren't sciences, but humanities and they lose their basis when they forget that they are constituted mainly in human belief and action, which is not itself scientific, though it might be statistical if the sample's large enough. This crisis ought to remind the social sciences that they're human too. On the other hand, as Prof. Muhlberger says, there still isn't going to be any extra money.

Jeff said...

It's not a very romantic suggestion, I know, but it seems to me that one of the more mundane lessons this financial crisis offers for humanities types is to learn more math--and, by extension, to gain a better understanding of fields like finance that rely on basic mathematical literacy.

I continue to meet humanities students who brag about their ignorance of math and then take out five-digit grad-school loans or acquire a mortgage even though they don't understand how compound interest works--i.e., that the money they're paying back at 8% is more than twice what they'd pay back at 4%. An educated person should understand this stuff; it isn't witchcraft.

Unlike the writer of the Chronicle article, I have no particular vision for the humanities, but maybe the field would be in better shape if more humanities types acquired greater quantitative knowledge so that fewer aspiring artists, writers, historians, etc., go broke.

Realtor in Toronto said...

"The humanities are, if not the top priority right now, at least one of the areas that must be recognized as crucial, and supported accordingly. The present crisis does not eclipse the humanities but rather reveals the need for the skills, dispositions, and resources that the humanities, and only the humanities, cultivate...."

What skills? What dispositions? The social sciences are based on try-and-guess theories and can never provide accurate results...

Take care, Elli

Matthew Gabriele said...

Elli,

Thanks for visiting. I think there are actually 2 different things here -- Social Sciences (Economics, Sociology, Political Science, etc.) and the Humanities (Literature, History, etc.). The essay's actually just defending the latter (though, as I try to say above, I think the former need not be singled out for blame here) and the author goes through to show exactly which skills the Humanities provide that help people understand today's world. How to read a text, how to understand culture and psychology, etc. Hope that helps...