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The Humanities Inferiority Complex

By Spencer W. Glassman, Contributing Opinion Writer
Spencer W. Glassman ’23-’24, an inactive Crimson Editorial editor, is a History concentrator in Leverett House. His column “A More Human Humanities” appears on alternate Fridays.

The paucity of time mandates that we spend it on things that are good in and of themselves. We often hear of the importance of sacrifice. But sacrifice has never meant doing something bad so that a good may later appear; instead, sacrifice can be more accurately defined as doing something which does not appear to be good, but actually is. Though goodness existed from the beginning, it became apparent later.

Such is the case with the study of the humanities. The humanities are the disciplines of the soul. They are immaterial, but not abstract. Philosophy, at its best, is practical and even urgent. We study the humanities because they help us understand what it is to be human. Understanding something fully means also comprehending its “telos.” The true humanist is pushed towards pursuing a more good life because of his studies.

Such intangible studies have no place in the materialist society we inhabit. One who is attentive may be familiar with the three books on Harvard’s seal, collectively bearing the word “Veritas.” All three books are face-up, imploring us to read and seek Veritas through our own endeavor. However, not all three books were always oriented as such. If one were to wander to the Barker Center, Austin Hall, or even the John Harvard Statue, one would find the third book mysteriously overturned, its binding jutting upward. There is a serious implication to this symbolic transition, one embodied best in the man Francis Bacon.

The open books indicate truth as a process able to be harnessed by man. It is therefore scientific. Enough experimentation and logic will achieve full knowledge of the truth, which is effectively equivalent to the dominion laid out by Bacon, who is credited with birthing the scientific method. The closed book suggests that much knowledge may be accessible through reasoning, but admits that truth cannot be fully grasped through physical means alone. Essentially, the contrast between these two symbols is between materialism and idealism.

On the one hand, everything can be understood and mastered because it consists of matter. Understanding the human and the human’s end is not substantively different from understanding gravity and its effects. Both exist in some visible or physical way, and thus are governed by the same laws.

On the other hand, there are notions, ideas, or even substances that cannot be known empirically or even logically. Instead, concepts such as “the good” or “the soul” exist in ways that can interact with us, but are never physically present. We can understand them through contemplation, sentiment, and revelation.

The modern academy is firmly on the side of the materialist. Under this regime, only specific pursuits may be justified. Medicine, for example, seems to be the most virtuous field of study. After all, in the wake of the recent pandemic it is those who research medicine whose advancements have allowed us to save many lives with vaccines. Engineering and computer science are further examples of disciplines that make sense in a materialist framework. They provide us with the ability to make tangible progress, oftentimes aiding doctors, workers, the military, or any number of obviously useful groups. Ultimately, the fields which allow us to achieve the Baconian vision of dominion are easily justifiable. Even those fields which are more theoretical and unapplied such as physics and mathematics are not only methodologically consistent with the materialist regime, but also can help to effectuate its ends through their application.

Of Harvard’s three divisional distribution requirements, clearly Science and Engineering and Applied Science is safe. The Social Sciences are in opposition to the Humanities, and are its materialist alternative. Psychology and cognitive science, aided by the more purely scientific neuroscience, attempt to clarify all mysteries of human action and thought, stomping out room for the soul and thus for the humanist. Political science replaces political philosophy, the modern study of economics as a human-scientific phenomenon replaces the original Greek economics which is an art. Languages are only useful insofar as they can help us profit, which causes scholars of the Classical languages to suffer. The humanities are destroyed by materialism; they have no logical justification.

The first question any concentrator in the humanities is asked is “what are you going to do with that?” as if the study in and of itself were useless. Those in the humanities have struggled to defend it, especially those who subscribe to the materialist paradigm. From this, we are told that humanities help make us critical thinkers, good researchers, or eloquent writers, which are in turn useful towards materialist ends. This attempt being empty, the humanities lose confidence in themselves and begin to try and adopt the sciences because they are “truer.” We are inundated with quantitative history, philological approaches to literature, and professors of philosophy rather than philosophers.

The humanities must be studied for their own sake, not as shells of what they once were, nor as stepping-stones to something “actually important.” The humanities cannot beat the sciences at their own game, and they shouldn’t try. Each discipline has fundamentally different goals. In order for the humanities to recapture importance we must relitigate the question of materialism. Studying the Humanities is fruitful apart from anything else. We just need to realize that again.

Spencer W. Glassman ’23-’24, an inactive Crimson Editorial editor, is a History concentrator in Leverett House. His column “A More Human Humanities” appears on alternate Fridays.

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