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A Faustian Defense of the Humanities

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• Is the world eternal? YES
• Do humans have contra-causal free will (i.e., can humans do otherwise)? NO
• Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? YES
• Do humans have souls? YES
• Are there natural rights? YES
• Is it morally permissible to eat meat? NO
• Is the unexamined life worth living? NO
• Is truth subjectivity? YES
• Is virtue necessary for happiness? YES
• Can a computer have a mind? YES
• Can humans know reality as it is in itself? YES
• Is hell other people? YES
• Can art be created accidentally? NO
• Can we change the past? NO
• Are numbers real? NO
• Is it always better to know the truth? YES

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SUNY Albany recently eliminated several programs in the Humanities, including French, German, Italian, and Classics. To read a very good essay on why this was a witless move, read here. (Note that the author is a scientist.)



  1. blood_and_ashes says:

    “If the President of Brandeis needed a lecture hall on short notice, he would get one. I guess you don’t have much clout at your university.”

    OH SNAP!!!!

    Very good letter, thanks for this.


  2. Sandi Atwood says:

    I don’t even know where to start. This guy nailed it, I could not agree more! The insights of all disciplines is crucial to any kind of real understanding; meaningful application.


  3. The standard economist critique is the repugnant one, that there was some sort of redundency in the ciriculum. This would require some changes in the categories of education where some essential elements have migrated to other fields. Economics is known for trying to colonize other social sciences, for example. I find this argument very lacking in this case though. I can’t think where the languages and classics would be taught if not at the university.

    The only thing I can think of is that it is easier to travel now than it was. So if one wants to learn a language one can go to the place it is spoken, or buy language software and then go.

    I find the classics part the most depressing. However, there are plenty of universities that have specialized in promoting their classics in innovative ways (cough, cough); so maybe there is room for competition on this margin. Maybe this is a gauntlet thrown down for us educators to think dynamically about how we can become powerful instructors on margins that people just aren’t seeing the value. Innovate or perish for these important disiplines as a whole. If people only understood what we know about the value of these underappreciated ideas, it would be a slam dunk. When valuable markets are closed by stupid administrators this presents an opportunity for enterprising people.

    I am young and therefore somewhat optimistic (naive) about this!


  4. Sandi Atwood says:

    Perhaps this is in fact a criticism of capitalism and economics itself. I agree that many theoretical disciplines are being absorbed by and applied to other more economically viable and practical disciplines, which is great, to an extent. However, if the humanities are wholly reduced to their utility to other disciplines, we have lost something, I think. And not just a superfluous “that’s a bummer” kind of loss, but rather a devastating “two steps back” kind of loss.

    Aristotle, in his, Metaphysics, asserts, “the man of experience is considered wiser than those who know only sensations of whatever kind, and the artist wiser than the man of experience, the master than the handworker and the theoretical science than the practical. Patently then wisdom is knowledge of principles and causes.” (Notably he does not attribute Wisdom to utility.)

    I agree with you that innovation is needed to draw attention to the “value” of these disciplines, but that value should not demand a bottom line.


  5. Kleiner says:

    Enterprising people may find an opportunity in all of this. Like Michael, I am optimistic (naive).

    But I am not so sure that innovation is necessarily the answer here. My experience teaching great books and great ideas is that they “sell themselves” (their value is obvious) when students are exposed to them. I went to a small liberal arts college for undergrad. No one there had to “sell” the great books since their value was obvious to anyone who read them. My students don’t complain about reading Plato (well, I don’t hear the complaints at least). What I hear is ‘I had no idea Plato was so incredibly interesting and relevant to me!’

    I think the answer, then, is fighting to preserve and enhance the core curriculum of university education. I welcome any innovative ideas, but I sometimes think the answer is as simple as (a) administration having the courage to stand up for the core in the face of serious pressure to move toward a more vocational posture and (b) having good teachers teaching great books.


  6. Michael Thomas says:

    This reply is mostly for Sandi, but much of it is tangential to that comment.

    I am a big fan of ditching the atomistic notion of economics. I have no problem thinking of J.S. Mill as firmly in the cannon of economists. The rational choice model which came to dominate in the 20th century largely came out of a narrowly defined research agenda around game theory (Phillip Mirowski, Notre Dame, is a stud on collecting primary sources about this history).

    This theory was never meant to be a kernel sufficient to span the space of economic activity. [It just did well enough when used that way for a few decades.] If economics takes seriously the type of anthropology Kleiner wants to use we end up with agents who have a type of rationality that is harder to define and almost impossible to use to predict out of sample. [trade-off] It is the economist’s role qua policy advisor which causes most of the problems, and training technocrats to manipulate parameters for different agent-types will always end up with impoverished results.

    At the end of the day our students are solving unique problems. We have an obligation to respond to their needs to prepare them for the jobs which are envisaged in their future. As long as some of those jobs are technocratic there will be a bent in the curriculum for that. As long as some of our students want jobs which do not require the mind to be challenged in this way; they will chose courses which have the most “umph” in terms of signaling preparedness for that those jobs. [I personally think these jobs will head overseas in the next generation or so]

    I find it hard to think about this problem in terms of a failure of the administration as much as a reaction to what employers see education doing. When I think of possible innovation, I think of changing the message to the employers. We have to create jobs for our students by selling the rich, complex, and dynamic thinking we create. This is the first step for employers to see the value in what we want to do. [We are on the right side of history; should globalization continue.]

    Employers hire people, not skill sets. To make this point we have to correctly articulate the value of the thinkers we produce.


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