Zizek, Toilets, and a Defense of the Humanities

The Crimson Staff staked out an interesting position for itself in its recent editorial “Let Them Eat Code.” The argument goes: Our economy needs more scientists and engineers; more people majoring in these fields will mean more people working in them; ergo, we should have more science and engineering majors. The article relies on several faulty assumptions, even setting aside the fact that we cannot predict what the job market will demand in the future. I’m a social studies concentrator who likes to moonlight in economics—I certainly don’t mean to suggest that technical or mathematically involved majors are worthless (or even worth less). But I believe that we get better technology, medicine, and growth—and live better lives in general—when we cultivate people with a wide variety of interests and areas of expertise. Let’s not get our pocket protectors and vintage flannels all in a bunch—there‘s room for undergraduate disciplinary diversity, at Harvard and beyond.

Why do we go to college in the first place? If you're looking (as The Crimson seems to assume you are) for a place to teach you “computer skills” so that you can deal with all of our society’s extra “digitization,” then Harvard is seriously overpriced. A liberal arts education is about learning critical thinking skills and engaging with the thoughts of people, some dead, some alive, who were or are much, much smarter than you and me. The Crimson's assumption that “people will still read books” is evidence of the lazy thinking that results when people assume familiarity with disciplines in which they do not participate. Have you heard of Devant La Loi? Truth and Method? Hopefully you've at least heard of Being and Time. Clearly The Crimson has not—if its staff tried to read any one of these works on their own, they'd have quickly abandoned their drivel about people being able to read books without professional guidance. Not all literature, history, and philosophy can be democratized so easily.

Will people still read Catcher in the Rye if humanities departments go extinct? Sure. They'll even get something out of it. But to say that they will get as much out of the independent experience as they would from an English class would be wrong; it’d be like saying that I could watch the Mythbusters episode on the moon landing and know everything there is to know about rocket science. Humanities professors may not be able to give you “objective truth.” But they'll certainly see and share things that you don't, and that's why they get paid to think about their subjects.

What specifically do we get out of a humanities education? Why should you, in The Crimson's words, “spend four years listening to lecturers warn you that you can never really know anything”? Because it’s true—you can’t. Learning to locate and question the assumptions that you think you “know” about the world will make you a more critical and creative thinker. This kind of thinking is the Holy Grail for those seeking gainful employment—indeed, 93 percent of employers say they care much more about your critical thinking ability than they do about your major. Medical schools, similarly, don't care all that much about your undergraduate field of study. In fact, plenty of people in the kinds of professions that The Crimson tells us we need got humanities degrees (from treasury secretaries to tech gurus). Indeed, the most important thing you can do in college to prepare yourself for life is to pursue what inspires you. Someone with a background in code-switching brings something different to the table than someone with a background in coding, and the more perspectives we have, the more likely we are to make and do cool stuff.

Why, then, is everyone leaving the humanities? Because the humanities need to do a better job of justifying themselves. Learning quantum mechanics is just as—if not more—impractical for my goals as learning hermeneutics. In fact, engaging with thinkers like Heidegger, Fanon, and Butler has been more influential in my life than even classical mechanics ever will be (gravity’s a force in your life even if you don’t study it; the same can’t be said for abstract philosophy). The humanities are everywhere, from the study of literature, to, as Zizek reminds us, the study of toilets.


Though for The Crimson (and for much of America) the sciences have become synonymous with pragmatism, that needn't be the case. Whether you’re learning to program in Java or to speak Javanese, engaging critically with the material will be all you need to do to prepare yourself for the challenges that lie ahead. Our society doesn’t need programmers and engineers—it needs thinkers, and they can come from anywhere. Let them eat whatever they damn well please.

Nathaniel W. Donahue ’15 is a social studies concentrator in Adams House.