What is the Value of the Humanities?

The humanities refers to that group of fields—literature, history, philosophy, and so forth—that investigate the nature of meaning, or how we make sense of the world around us. Unlike some scientific fields, the humanities are less interested in the mechanics of the physical world and are more focused on questions of quality, value, language, comparison, law, and religion. While an engineer might develop a ramp to make a building more accessible for wheelchair users, a humanist would be more likely to investigate the assumptions of the architect who designed an inaccessible building in the first place.

Though it’s common in the public and among academics to say, “Naturally, there’s an inherent value to the humanities,” few people can offer indisputable reasons for explaining why this is true. To be fair, many of the sciences run up against the same problem when we press the issue—it seems odd to say that number theory has more “real-world” application than professional writing. But in a social climate in which job training is what administrators push, it can be difficult to convince a hiring manager that something like a history or philosophy degree has value that isn’t simply intrinsic, beyond explanation. Philosophy requires a high degree of reading comprehension, analytic skills, and often mathematical knowledge, but you’ll rarely see a job post for a “philosopher” position on LinkedIn.

Helen Small’s 2013 book The Value of the Humanities offers some insights on this question of value. It’s a little different than other books with similar titles, primarily because Small’s approach to the question of value is not a polemic rant—it’s an analysis. There are some common myths or arguments she’s taking a look at to gain some clarity on the issue, many of which have to do with what we mean when we claim something is “valuable.”

Intrinsic Value?

One common argument goes like this: The humanities have intrinsic value; once you ask about use-value, you automatically frame the humanities in a neoliberal, capitalistic frame with which they are at odds. 

This is kind of true if you’re a critic of neoliberalism (and anyone familiar with that word is probably already a critic), but it’s also a very limiting answer that doesn’t get at the question of value. A moderate approach to this idea might suggest that the humanities do in fact teach you skills, or that the arts have a functional use-value. The argument that something has an intrinsic value is problematic because it ignores the ways (1) value is embedded in social meaning and (2) the ways humanists can apply their knowledge in broad ways.

The common argument against focusing on use-value is intelligent in that it considers ideological frameworks, but it also tends to shut down conversation without actually addressing the point. Yes, concepts like “utility” are derived from eighteenth-century notions of capital, but the humanities also contribute significantly to the GDP and cultural development as well—whether you want them to or not.

Self-Culture and Individual Happiness

Common argument #2: The humanities contribute to social and individual happiness and well-being; it’s a way of understanding the human holistically.

This argument has its roots largely in nineteenth-century thinking, particularly John Stuart Mills’s theory of utilitarianism. But the problem with this idea, as Small notes, is that the humanities won’t necessarily make you happier; instead, they help you better understand what happiness means at any given moment.

Kathryn Hamilton Warren’s essay on “Self-Culture and the Private Value of the Humanities” (2018) touches on this issue, but from a slightly different, less utilitarian angle. Building on the transcendentalists such as Henry David Thoreau, Warren argues that the humanities should emphasize self-criticism and examination. Studying books won’t necessarily bring joy into your world, but it could give you insights about what you value in your life.

The position of “self-growth” is a bit controversial because it’s not always clear how you should make a living when you’re “growing”—Thoreau famously had his mother do his laundry while at Walden Pond, living in a cabin that was built on land borrowed from Emerson—but it goes back to the first question about how we frame value. As Small suggests, the emphasis on happiness and utility in the humanities is the product of social conditioning—something toward which we should retain a healthy dose of skepticism.

Better Citizens—or Elitism?

Common argument #3:  Democracy needs the humanities. “Democracy is good; therefore the humanities are good”—that’s the way this argument goes. But, there’s a small bit that often gets little scrutiny, which is how the humanities (arguably) make us more democratic.

This idea is rooted in the liberal-arts tradition, and it dates to Socrates’ Apology: “I am the gadfly of the Athenian people, given to them by God.” The “gadfly” argument is that the philosopher is a supreme check on the politicians; the problem, though, is that Socrates thinks a little too highly of himself. The major critique of the notion that the humanities are central to democracy is that it tends to be elitist—who, after all, gets to be a humanist and shape our society?

Additionally, for those in post-secondary education, this argument is mostly for primary or secondary school. There’s an access issue here once we move to college demographics: only 12 to 15 percent of people study humanities in higher education, so the argument tends toward stewardship, a deeply paternalistic model. Socrates, after all, thinks he was “given by God” to steer the political life of the Athenians.

This argument also puts politics first and the humanities second—the goal of the humanities is, per this logic, to support the political realm. It’s an argument that skips past the humanities directly and emphasizes the political world without clarifying how the two are related.

Martha Nussbaum has a unique take on this argument, and many others suggest that the key to making the humanities good for democracy is universalizing them, making them accessible to everyone. This avoids the paternalistic “sent by God” model, but we also need to recognize that the humanities have always had a troubling history of racism, imperialism, sexism, ableism, and various other types of “isms.”

What’s the Answer?

We should avoid saying that the humanities are absolute needs, per Small, in the rudimentary sense of the word “needs,” even though some argue “creative expression” is a human right. Suggesting the humanities are an “absolute need” tends to have more symbolic than real significance, especially from a rhetorical perspective. In the same way that the argument of “art for art’s sake” tends to ignore social context, the idea that the humanities are an “absolute necessity” tends to change the meaning of “absolute need” for the assertion to stick.

That said, the value of the humanities can be found in some version of the common arguments above. They all essentially revolve around the idea that we need to change our perspective when it comes to value, and that change in perspective is partly what the humanities offers. We can claim that the humanities are necessary for democracy, as long as we critically investigate that idea. And, the same goes for the idea that the humanities can’t be measured by use-value, as long as we recognize that, in fact, the humanities do have use-value. Self-culture is important, too, if we don’t fool ourselves into thinking happiness is a consequence of humanities scholarship, or as long as we’re aware we need some degree of privilege to be able to use our time for contemplation.

Small, Helen. The Value of the Humanities. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Warren, Kathryn Hamilton. “Self-Culture and the Private Value of the Humanities.” College Literature, vol. 45, no. 4, 2018, pp. 587–595.