How the humanities lost their prestige


If scientists at the Santa Fe Institute cured death, or teleported matter, or widened the electromagnetic spectrum, their central achievement would still be the befriending of Cormac McCarthy. America’s greatest living writer is not known to mingle much outside this maverick research group in the New Mexico steppe. His latest novels, which digress into mathematics and string theory, bear the stamp of his learned friends.

McCarthy is careless of “relevance”. He wrote about 19th-century scalp hunters during the Reagan boom. It is with his turn to science that at last he reflects a modern trend: the declining prestige of the humanities.

A liberal arts education was once the price of admission into polite society. Don’t assume that will hold true a generation from now. There is too much reputational wear and tear to contend with.

Some of it comes from the cultural left. Go to the Cézanne exhibition at Tate Modern and read the bumpf that accompanies it. You are asked to “wonder what this landscape would have looked like to us without colonisation?” Much the same, mate. “Would we care about Cézanne or his work?” Most likely. At one point, it is implied that he painted in fractured, proto-Cubist style because the “disintegration” of life in French colonies was weighing on his subconscious. Were EY, who sponsor the show, too shy to press for an editor?

There are columns that would pause here to deplore the politicisation of art, literature and history. The point in this one is different: the problem is to a large extent self-solving. Surely, at some stage, the humanities become too silly to command public confidence? Employers start to view arts degrees with suspicion. Students read that price signal from the labour market and do other things. Taxpayers resent subsidising sententious museums and universities. The decline of English as an A-level subject, and the rise of Stem, seem like warnings.

It might, with imagination, be possible to subvert the sciences with the same postmodern froth that has drowned the arts. Until then, these subjects are the intellectual version of US bonds or the Swiss franc: a store of value in strange times. What it means to be an educated person wasn’t always so humanities-skewed. Getting through a 17th to 19th century salon was hard work without some “naturalist” grounding. That more balanced life of the mind could come back into fashion.

If it does, the humanities will have themselves to blame for their relative demotion. Wokery is not the whole problem. The rest of the reputational hit has come from our educationally narrow rulers. The humanities gave the UK Boris Johnson (classics), Liz Truss (philosophy, politics and economics) and a governing class of fluent bluffers.

An arts-trained elite was no great liability when the state spent 5 per cent of national output. When that share is getting on for half, the case for office-holders of a more technical ken rather makes itself. Journalism has a similar problem. Television news now parses the “meaning” of events over their factual substance. We are all columnists now. I can only apologise.

Looking back, Allan Bloom was only half-right, and parochial, to declare the “closing of the American mind” in 1986. The debasement of the humanities is real enough. But the mind does science, too, and that bit of it remained open.

It is tempting to blame the fallen status of the humanities to the fact that science “matters” more. Great events — the pandemic, climate change, energy prices — have involved the natural world of late. While there isn’t much more to say about the motives of Iago, the species has only begun to fathom what goes on at the atomic and subatomic level. The potential gains in quantum technology are hard for the laity, including me, to even picture.

But this isn’t the root of the problem facing the liberal arts. A 75-minute discussion has gone up on YouTube between McCarthy and the Institute’s president. What you see is the innate pleasure of thought, freed from political invigilation. The humanities have lost their knack for it. Society’s best will turn away accordingly. It isn’t the importance of scientific knowledge that gets a private genius to talk, but its incorruptibility.

janan.ganesh@ft.com

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