Literature, Philosophy, Humanities: What is Their Use?

What is the value of a degree in literature, philosophy, or humanities?

Frankly, I enjoy literature because as a human being, stories stir my imagination. As Doris Lessing, in her 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature acceptance speech, stated,

The storyteller is deep inside every one of us. The story-maker is always with us. Let us suppose our world is ravaged by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise. But the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us -for good and for ill. It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative.

And, in addition, I would love to have a good understanding of the craft involved in great stories so that I could appreciate them better.

But that's not the same as justifying their study to an external audience (see Fish's "Will the Humanities Save Us?"). Yet various articles make the assertion for a practical application of a degree in English. For instance, So you want to study ... A master's in English (Liz Ford) is a series of interviews on people who chose to study English, including why they did.

One individual stated, "One employer said, 'We want people who can think outside the box.'" Well, I imagine that English majors can certainly think outside of science or business boxes, but I'm not sure what value one of Shakespeare's sonnets would have in engineering design or accounting procedures.

Another stated, "More so than any other subject, English gives you transferable skills. You learn to write and express yourself well and learn communication skills." To some degree, I buy into this. Even so, it's a well-known fact that writing in a one style doesn't transfer well to another. One study (Berkenkotter, Huckin, & Ackerman), for instance, showed the difficulty a doctoral student had in transferring his previous experience in writing (bachelor's and master's in education, along with an intensive eight week seminar on "The Writing Process: A Humanistic Perspective") into the field of rhetoric:

During his early months in the program ... An analysis of his papers reveals several months of confusion during whicdh his writing suffered from numerous stylistic problems: poor cohesion, disorganized paragraphs, lack of focus, inappropriate vocabulary.

One reason for the difficulty in writing transfer was

Nate is "wrestling with ideas" at the expense of organization and style

In other words, to write well, you need to know the content matter. In fact, although Nate did make progress, his

difficulties with cohesion and coherence persisted long after he gained a relative mastery over the material that he was studying in his courses

If this much difficulty occurred in transferring writing knowledge and skills from one social science discipline to another, imagine how much more difficulty will occur when transferring outside of the social sciences to business or the "hard" sciences.

Then, Why should anyone think that academic experience, regardless of discipline, would provide someone with good writing skills? Denis Dutton, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Canterbury, wrote an article entitled "Language Crimes: A Lesson in How Not to Write, Courtesy of the Professoriate",

Pick up an academic book, and there’s no reason to expect the writing to be graceful or elegant. Many factors attract people to the scholarly life, but an appealing prose style was never a requirement for the job.

Having spent the past 23 years editing a scholarly journal, Philosophy and Literature, I have come to know many lucid and lively academic writers. But for every superb stylist there are a hundred whose writing is no better than adequate — or just plain awful.

Yet, literature, as Lessing asserts, has a value in its stories. Stories may be the best way of learning. As Alicia Juarrero, a philosopher, asserts, understanding requires a hermeneutics that “provide[s] insight into and understanding of how something happened, that is, into its dynamics, background, and context” (p. 240), that is, stories (see Dynamics in action, Part III). The stories she speaks of, however, are not limited to literature but may take the nature of Shell Scenarios for managerial decision making or of Roger Shank's Socratic Arts, in which

students work through the story to achieve the missions the story puts forth, they learn the critical skills they need to successfully accomplish their tasks. The SCC implements true learning-by-doing, integrating all aspects of real-world tasks, as opposed to teaching skills independently, without context.

Daniel Drolet, reporting on Philosophy's Makeover (via Stephen Downes), quotes Jeff Noonan,

“Philosophy develops communication skills, the ability to organize complex materials, negotiate between different positions and tease out different problems,” says Jeff Noonan, head of the philosophy department at the University of Windsor. “An extraordinary range of jobs require those abilities.”

And according to Daniel Gervais, a professor of law,

There’s definitely a thirst in business for people who can think creatively, analytically and outside the box

Although I would instinctively think that learning to think systematically and logically should be of help in solving certain types of problems, I know too little of philosophy to evaluate its practical use. Yet, isn't this claim about creative thinking and thinking outside the box the same as claimed by English majors? And wouldn't it also be subject to the limitation of a lack of subject matter knowledge? Perkins and Salomon in Teaching for Transfer write,

While the basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic typically show transfer (for reasons to be discussed later), other sorts of knowledge and skill very often do not.

And philosophy would not seem to be a basic skill, although perhaps, as Perkins and Salomon note, certain skills such as "the role of evidence" and "general and important thinking strategies" may be applicable here. (See also The Expert Mind by Phillip Ross and Eklund's review of Heather Dykes' book Metaphysics and the Representational Fallacy via Stephen Downes.)

In addition to critical thinking outside-the-box skills, many argue that humanities can give character. Stanley Fish naysays that as wishful thinking in Will the Humanities Save Us?

The premise of secular humanism (or of just old-fashioned humanism) is that the examples of action and thought portrayed in the enduring works of literature, philosophy and history can create in readers the desire to emulate them. Philip Sydney put it as well as anyone ever has when he asks (in “The Defense of Poesy,” 1595), “Who reads Aeneas carrying old Anchises on his back that wishes not it was his fortune to perform such an excellent act?” Thrill to this picture of filial piety in the Aeneid and you will yourself become devoted to your father. Admire the selfless act with which Sidney Carton ends his life in “A Tale of Two Cities” and you will be moved to prefer the happiness of others to your own. Watch with horror what happens to Faust and you will be less likely to sell your soul. Understand Kant’s categorical imperative and you will not impose restrictions on others that you would resist if they were imposed on you.

It’s a pretty idea, but there is no evidence to support it and a lot of evidence against it. If it were true, the most generous, patient, good-hearted and honest people on earth would be the members of literature and philosophy departments, who spend every waking hour with great books and great thoughts, and as someone who’s been there (for 45 years) I can tell you it just isn’t so. Teachers and students of literature and philosophy don’t learn how to be good and wise; they learn how to analyze literary effects and to distinguish between different accounts of the foundations of knowledge. The texts Kronman recommends are, as he says, concerned with the meaning of life; those who study them, however, come away not with a life made newly meaningful, but with a disciplinary knowledge newly enlarged.

And Fish's position is backed up by studies in character education. Lawrence Kohlberg found that reasoning was necessary for moral judgment, and moral judgment for moral action, but moral reasoning and judgment were not sufficient for moral behavior. That is, one may be able to judge a situation correctly in terms of moral principles and still not take moral action.

Although Fish concludes that there is no practical "use" to the humanities, I'm more inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to philosophy, as far as transfer of critical thinking goes. And although the evidence for transfer of thinking skills with respect to literature would not seem to be on the same level as philosophy, with Lessing, its stories can instill a "fire" within us that has its own value and without which we might not be human. In fact, along the lines of Juarrero and informed by literature, I would redesign, as much as possible, curricula to be great stories.

Offline references
Berkenkotter, C., T. N. Huckin, & J. Ackerman (1998). Conventions, conversations, and the writer: Case study of a student in a rhetoric Ph.D. program. Research in the Teaching of English, 22, 9-44.

Juarrero, A. (2002). Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Kohlberg, L. (1999). The cognitive-developmental approach to moral education." In A. C. Ornstein and L. S. Behar-Horenstein, eds., Contemporary Issues in Curriculum, 4th ed. (pp. 163-75). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.