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In praise of the humanities

Susan Balée teaches in the Intellectual Heritage Program at Temple University. Now more than ever, critics of higher education want to know what students are learning and whether it’s worth the cost of tuition.

Susan Balée teaches in the Intellectual Heritage Program at Temple University.

Now more than ever, critics of higher education want to know what students are learning and whether it's worth the cost of tuition.

In this era of budget cuts, nowhere is the critique more pointed than at the disciplines known as the humanities — philosophy, history, and literature, among them — where the knowledge students master is much harder to quantify than, say, the skill sets offered in science, engineering, or medicine.

Wondering what kind of case the best and the brightest in the humanities could mount in the face of a governmental — and public — need for measurement and "proof" of value, I headed to Princeton last weekend to attend a symposium titled "The Ethics of Reading: The Humanities in the Public Sphere." What I witnessed there made me wish anyone who doubts the merit of higher education could have heard and seen these passionate practitioners of their fields at work.

The best speakers at the conference bring a humane touch to the humanities. Jonathan Lear is a philosopher from the University of Chicago whose work has brought him into a deep relationship with the Crow Indians. His 2006 book, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation details the changes that came to the Crow nation in the late 19th century, as described by their tribe's last great leader, Chief Plenty Coups: "When the buffalo went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground and they could not lift them up again."

Lear decided after reading Plenty Coups' words to make something happen. The book began a dialogue between the scholar and the Crow. After the book came out, Lear's relationship with the Crow got closer (he is a blood brother now to many of their families). He accepted a request from tribal elders to help them recover the documents of their history (many of them housed in boxes in the basement of the Field Museum), and their sense of self.

Lear's work addresses a fear that the dominant culture of America now faces, too: Our way of life could also collapse. The Occupy movements and our students' heavy debt loads suggest dark times for America, and new studies say the generation now emerging from college will be worse off than their parents. This must be especially true for those with humanities degrees.

So what is the rationale for studying the humanities? The symposium organizers gave us one handout that included this message: "The ability to read critically the messages that politics, commerce, and culture bombard us with may be more than ever needed training in our society, where the manipulation of minds and hearts is increasingly what running that world is all about." What the humanities teaches is how to read critically and think analytically.

After a panel describing reading and the interpretive process, a session on the role of reading in the professions turned to texts with real-world consequences. Patricia Williams of Columbia, who writes the "Diary of a Mad Law Professor" column for the Nation, showed a series of ambiguous images that were then rendered unambiguous with captions such as "enemy combatant," "terrorist," or "looter." She then asked a question every American should think very hard about: "What about us is truly inalienable?"

Peter Brooks, the Princeton literature scholar who convened the symposium, is known for his own work on testimony and torture. His book, Troubling Confessions: Speaking Guilt in Law and Literature, might have been a foundation for the last panel on the role of the humanities in human rights. A discussion of the torture memos penned by John Yoo as a Justice Department lawyer under President George W. Bush brought the relationship between the humanities and human rights into focus. What to make of Yoo, educated in history at Harvard, and in law at Yale? Apparently his education did not stop him from crafting a legal justification for waterboarding.

Elaine Scarry, a scholar who once graced the Penn campus before Harvard snatched her up, sees him as an anomaly. Her book, On Beauty and Being Just, details her belief that beauty (a work of great literature is one of the objects of beauty she names) heals injury and renders justice. Her talk at Princeton focused on the power of literature to heal, and she cited three ways it does: its invitation to empathy, its reliance on deliberative thought, and its beauty. Some audience members disagreed, and one cited the example of Nazis who read the poet Friedrich Holderlin while ordering the gassing of Jews.

Scarry is not only scary smart; she's wonderfully convincing. It's certainly true that the opposite of healing, the inflicting of pain — she has another book titled The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World — destroys not only any sense of beauty, but language itself, reducing sufferers in the most extreme instances to an inarticulate state.

The Princeton symposium reinforced for me why the humanities matter, but how to convince the budget-cutters? The answer arrived a few days ago over dinner, delivered by my 18-year-old son, Mark, who talked about a visitor to his class: Josh Fattal, the Cheltenham High School alum who spent two years of his life imprisoned in Iran on charges he was a spy.

In describing his ordeal, Fattal told the students that "books were gold," and literature had kept his soul alive. The first book he got in English while in prison was a 70-page condensed version of Pride and Prejudice, and he savored every detail of the Bennett sisters' lives as they negotiated the marriage market of Regency England. "Those were the most glorious 70 pages I ever read," he recalled, and he reread them many times.

It's not often one can make a claim like this and have it be true, but Jane Austen saved a young man from despair. If there's a better justification for the humanities than that, I don't know what it is.

E-mail Susan Balée at