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The Humanities Know (Part 2): Meaning Matters

This post is the second installment in a series titled “The Humanities Know.” Click here for the first installment.

My initial post about the value of the humanities purported to be an argument “against the materialists who believe that anything without an obvious, short-term cash value is in fact valueless.” By “materialists” here, I don’t mean anything very technical: simply the valuing of material wealth to an extent that crowds out other values. In recent debates over higher education, we’ve seen materialists of this ilk repeatedly deny the value of the humanities, suggesting unfairly that college graduates with humanities degrees lack useful skills.[1] Not only is this characterization of humanities graduates inaccurate, but students of the humanities know something very important about the way the “real world” works that flies in the face of materialism: meaning matters. Neither individuals nor groups make decisions based solely upon financial incentives. Rather, most people search for meaning by pursuing values that transcend material concerns. Understanding this fact about the human condition, humanists take the activity of making meaning, often labeled as “culture,” as a subject of serious study. Sometimes we even contribute to this culture through our scholarly and creative work.

Skeptics of this claim about the orientation of the humanities would rightly point out that some humanists (especially in literary criticism, philosophy, and cultural studies) have assaulted meaning in recent decades, interrogating and undermining knowledge claims through an intellectual project often (simplistically) labeled “postmodernism.” Be that as it may, most humanists are capable of putting aside our anxiety regarding the uncertainly or relativity of knowledge in order to recognize that meaning does indeed matter – and it matters as much for us as economic beings as it does for other aspects of living in the “real world.”[2]

We (human beings, whether humanists or not) make meaning as individuals and as groups, from the family on up to the nation-state and perhaps even, as one of my colleagues argues, through a “global civil society.” We make this meaning in myriad ways, most of which are forms of storytelling. Much of the work of the humanities is to show how our narratives (wherever they are embedded) shape social relations, build communities, motivate political participation, and also constitute the life-blood of the cultural segment of the economy (including but not limited to film, fiction, music, poetry, and the arts). In other words, the humanities (and their elder siblings, the arts) explore how meaning shapes and guides the important life choices of individuals and societies.[3]

Before exploring the humanist view further, let’s walk into the thorny thicket of the materialists. These folks take their ideas from neo-liberal economists, but as a general rule they don’t sweat the theory (or its evidential base) so much as they adhere to the ideology that “the market” should be the sole and final arbiter of value. From this point of view, the meanings we make are no more than mere stories we tell ourselves – a kind of epiphenomenal frosting on a purely material substrate – functioning as after-the-fact “rationales” for determined outcomes. For market ideologues, our decisions are (and should be) motivated by a very narrowly defined form of economic “rationality” – a sort of personal cost-benefit calculus.

To be fair, the materialists (who have become so influential in our halls of state) do not always wear their materialism on their coat sleeves, but usually clothe themselves in the language of family values, responsibility, patriotism, enterprise, growth, and, perhaps most of all, “job creation.” Perhaps some of them have a sincere personal dedication to these values. But if you look at their actions as public officials, they tend to focus on eviscerating public spending on education, healthcare, and social welfare programs, as well as on removing as many “barriers” to doing business as possible. Although the evidence for their position is dubious, they maintain that slashing spending at all levels of government is necessary in order to cut taxes, because the “job creators” won’t create jobs if taxes creep too high or if there are too many regulations.

While I would argue that neither American economic history nor comparative economics support this story told by market ideologues, I don’t deny that there is a certain logic to it. But it’s a logic that rests upon the flawed supposition that “economic growth” necessarily makes everyone prosperous – or at least everyone who deserves it. With this deeply problematic assumption in mind, it seems reasonable to some people to subordinate the government to business interests. The government should do what it can to promote business and should otherwise “get out of the way.”

Economic growth, measured in a very gross fashion, is thus seen as a panacea for almost all of our problems. The socio-economic inequality and the environmental degradation that have often accompanied growth when it is undertaken at any cost are either ignored, denied, or blamed on someone else. The materialists’ accounting sheet simply doesn’t accomodate these other costs, and they try to keep these issues off the table, politically. If we put aside for a moment that the folks who support this mindset and the policies that follow often reap unfair financial benefits, we can perhaps also see that their argument – Hey, everybody needs a job – does have something to be said for it. But if we step outside of the materialist frame of mind, we’d quickly ask: Yes, but what kind of job? And, will the work be good for me and my community?

In education, this materialist mindset suggests the need for the following “reforms,” to be engineered in large part by people who have no expertise in education or the fields being taught: first, define education as job training; second, privatize as much of education as possible; and third, subject higher education, which has obviously run afoul of the previous two principles, to the yoke of business logic (which, incidentally, will deprive many critics of market ideology of a platform for sharing their ideas).

As a counter-weight to the materialist worldview, consider the following – not exactly as an argument but rather as a collage of the human experience that hints at their errors. If meaning did not matter – if all that really mattered to us was short term economic value: Would earlier Americans have created a system of government that was meant to check the accumulation of power? Would democratic politics continue to exist, even in its currently diminished form? Would we even have public schools in the first place? Would religious controversies so powerfully shape world history, from ancient times to the present? Would indigenous peoples around the world continue to preserve their cultures in the face of globalization? Would tens of millions of people bother to creatively express themselves over the Internet? Would millions of Americans choose careers in fields where their primary work is to support the growth and wellbeing other people?

Would college graduates be better prepared to face “the real world” as it exists today if they no longer had opportunities to learn about the history of democracy, if they no longer had the chance to study creative works, if they never explored the diverse religions, cultures, and languages of our nation and of the world?

Currently, students who major or minor in the humanities (and other liberal arts programs) carefully study topics like these (politics, culture, religion, and language). But students in supposedly more “strategic” fields also have some exposure to these areas of study through general education programs – the wide array of courses in the humanities, social sciences, arts, and sciences that they must take to complete a degree. Thus the study of this activity of making meaning, which is central to the humanities, is an intergral part of any “higher” education. To neglect this facet of the human experience would be to leave students without the knowledge and understanding that they need to thrive in our diverse and culturally complex society, not only as workers but just as importantly as citizens and members of families and communities.

It should be clear by now that despite the attempts of materialists to deny the importance of meaning and culture – and the educational apparatus that supports it – they are in fact making a meaning of the crudest sort. I think it's high time for those of us who don't accept their diminished vision for public and private life to stand up and say so.


Postscript: I hope that it goes without saying here that I want people who are seeking jobs to be be able to find good jobs. Nothing I say here should be taken as against jobs or employers. I think that many successful business owners avoid the sort of materialism that I am criticizing here, and many of them also support public policy that transcends materialism. My concern about "good jobs" derives from the simple fact that most economic growth in the U.S. in recent decades has benefited people who were already quite well off, while leaving many working people underemployed, uninsured, and insecure for the future. A recent piece by Nobel-Prize-winning-economist Joseph Stiglitz supports my concern, as do countless other studies of growing economic inequality in the U.S.

  1. Corporate employers routinely report that most new college graduates, regardless of their major, need a year or two of on the job training. (In other words, business and communications majors need as much training as English and philosophy majors.) Yet it would be a serious mistake to therefore assume that higher education needs to be reformed as “job training.” If it were true that college graduates hadn’t really learned anything, then why do employers hire them rather than new employees with high school degrees only, which would certainly be cheaper? The fact is that modern corporate jobs require broad knowledge of proprietary information about employer-specific computer systems, product lines, clientele, and bureaucracies. These systems are properly the arena of job-specific training – not higher education. Employers need to be prepared to make this sort of investment in their workers.  ↩

  2. I reiterate the phrase “real world” here as a reminder that living in the real world includes a wide range of experiences that happen outside of compensated labor but are equally or more important to our existence as human beings. Our rhetorical habit of conflating the “real world” with the workplace is dehumanizing – and not incidentally so. Consider: who benefits from that sort of language?  ↩

  3. I realize that I am making a sweeping claim about the humanities. As a qualification, I might add that the humanities pursue this project in diverse and complex ways, and they do other other things as well. I take the liberty of refering to the arts as the “elder siblings” of the humanities because historically the creation of meaning has come before the formal study of said meaning.  ↩

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Reader Comments (1)

As a parent to teenagers who will be heading toward collage soon, I question your theory. You can call it materialism, however, realistically they need to gain an education that will allow themselves to be financially self supporting. Many of the college degrees are too vague and do not teach them a skill or provide them with the knowledge to go out into the work place and support themselves and a family.

September 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterParent

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