Book Review: ‘The Value of the Humanities’ by Helen Small; Professors who were eager to throw over the canon now find it difficult to defend their own jobs

Book Review: ‘The Value of the Humanities’ by Helen Small

Professors who were eager to throw over the canon now find it difficult to defend their own jobs.


Feb. 14, 2014 5:46 p.m. ET

For centuries—at least since Philip Sidney’s “Apology for Poetry” (1579)—poets and literary critics have felt the need to defend the study of imaginative writing against those who dismiss it as vain and useless. Sidney defended poetry’s utility against Plato’s criticisms in “The Republic”; Matthew Arnold defended the value of “culture” against those who considered it no more than “a smattering of Greek and Latin”; and F.R. Leavis attacked C.P. Snow for (as Leavis thought) demeaning the value of literature.

In our time the conflict manifests itself in a more generalized debate in which academic intellectuals defend the importance of the “humanities” against budget-conscious public officials. The academics insist that training students in the humanities—art, literature, history, music, classics, philosophy and so on—produces public benefits that cannot be measured in economic terms. But in their haste to defend their profession from the criticisms of number-crunchers, academics in the humane disciplines have adopted some pretty lame arguments. Helen Small, a professor of English at Oxford, is too respectful of her colleagues to put it that way, but that is the thrust of “The Value of the Humanities.” She has written the book, she says, for “academics, debating among ourselves” and for “representatives of our universities or our disciplines facing outward to the general public”; she hopes that the book “may improve the way ‘we’ as a society debate the public good of the humanities.”

The Value of the Humanities

By Helen Small
Oxford, 204 pages, $35

The author considers five major arguments defending the humanities. They are, briefly: (1) the humanities cultivate intellectual disciplines that the hard and social sciences either ignore or don’t emphasize; (2) the humanities are “useful” to society in ways that aren’t quantifiable; (3) the humanities bring a higher sort of happiness to those with a mind to study them; (4) the humanities prepare students for democratic citizenship (Ms. Small calls this the “democracy needs us” argument); and (5) the humanities matter “for their own sake”—they need no justification.

A couple of these arguments are empty or almost empty, as Ms. Small seems ready to acknowledge. For instance, the humanities are said (by advocates of No. 1) to consider the history of a problem rather than just the problem itself. So instruction in, say, comparative literature will, it is claimed, accustom students to the subjective nature of many judgments and train them to think in gradations of truth. But, as Ms. Small notes, practitioners of the sciences and social sciences are fully capable of examining the historical aspect of the problems they study; botanists and geneticists are just as mindful as professors of English and history that the same data can be interpreted in more than one way.

Similarly, after a long chapter dissecting the claim that an education in the humanities can enhance one’s capacity for happiness (No. 3), Ms. Small is reduced to the observation that “one can . . . retain the central perception that a higher level of education brings more complexly valuable kinds of cultural experience within our reach.” But few educated people seriously doubt that humane learning is valuable or that an education in the arts or in literature will produce “more complexly valuable” experiences. The question is whether those experiences are, in essence, a luxury—whether a lavishly expensive four-year degree should at the least train you to take on some remunerative employment.

The most devastating criticism of the humanities claims that they are useless: Undergraduate and graduate training in the history of religion or medieval literature or, worse, film criticism doesn’t enhance your chances of finding a job (unless, that is, you’re one of the lucky few to land a faculty position in one of these areas). No doubt sensing the logic of this criticism, several defenders of the humanities, Ms. Small explains, have taken a more measured line on the question of usefulness. “Knowledge just is instrumental,” Harvard professor of English Louis Menand wrote in “The Marketplace of Ideas” (2010): “it puts us in a different relationship with the world.” John Guillory, professor of English at New York University, points out that “knowing how to read shrewdly and write well is no small accomplishment and is in fact much more valued in the market than we have begun to acknowledge.” Thus argument No. 2: The humanities are “useful” to society, just not in easily quantifiable ways.

There may be some truth to that claim, but if so it’s a strictly theoretical truth, not a verifiable one. That’s also the case with the “democracy needs us” argument (No. 4). The humanities, this argument goes, remind us that there are higher truths than the pursuit of material acquisition and so prevent democracy from succumbing to “capitalism.” Proponents of this argument—see in particular Martha Nussbaum’s 2010 book, “Not for Profit”—tend to equate “capitalism” with crass acquisitiveness and soulless materialism. Ms. Small is properly skeptical of the often overwrought claims of the “democracy needs us” crowd. Yet she fails even to acknowledge its absurd premise: the idea that without the labors of academics, Shakespeare and Stravinsky and the Pre-Raphaelites would vanish from the cultural landscape.

Here we touch on the book’s central ambiguity. While the author often writes as if she is dealing with the question of whether the humanities are valuable to society or not, she isn’t. She’s addressing the much narrower question of whether universities ought to be the guardians of literature and art and music and history. The question, in other words, isn’t whether society will benefit from its educated population having a substantive familiarity with Jane Austen’s novels or the Peloponnesian War but whether universities in their present state—philosophically amoral, awash with bogus and ever-multiplying subdisciplines—can be trusted to meet that goal.

Perhaps Ms. Small should have looked more closely at the “for their own sake” argument (No. 5), with which she has little patience. That’s understandable: Stated in the abstract, it’s meaningless. But as Mark Bauerlein contended recently in an excellent essay in the New Criterion (“What Dido Did, Satan Saw & O’Keeffe Painted”), it’s the works themselves that, in traditional liberal educations, form characters and intellects. Yet debates on the value of the humanities rarely mention specific works of art and literature and music; Ms. Small’s book refers to only a few. Professors of the humanities are so determined to defend their positions as the guardians of their turf (what I’m calling “turf” used to be called a canon) that they forget they are its servants.

If Ms. Small’s aim is to help academics and university administrators make more nuanced arguments in favor of continued funding for the humanities, she may have succeeded. She is a highly intelligent writer and has a keen sense of the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments she addresses. As the possessor of an expensive doctoral degree in English from an ancient university, I admit with regret my suspicion that, even taking into account Ms. Small’s analysis, the “humanities” have only a very limited place in a modern higher-education curriculum. For those wishing to “read shrewdly and write well” or to attain “more complexly valuable” experiences, there are museums and opera houses. And of course books.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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