Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Spending $40,000

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So, to start–although not the main point, exactly–John says he can’t see spending $25,000 to $40,000 a year to develop “taste” or  “critical judgment” in literature and the arts.  I  deplore the vocabulary, and  I think Scruton concentrates far too myopically on only one corner of the Humanities, but if I could actually find somebody to teach that to my children, it’s practically the only thing I would find worth spending that kind of money on.

Part of this is just supply and demand.  Education in the sciences and technoloy is widespread.  A kid who learns calculus at the local community college learns the same calculus as if he’d studied at MIT–why the hell pay top rates for what can be had for much less.

Of course, MIT provides other things, most notably a peer group of a particular kind, that you might find worth it, but the studies themselves are straightforward and largely mechanical.  

Finding somebody these days who can actually teach the Humanities is very difficult.  They’re definitely out there, but you have to go looking for them, and they’re rare enough so that they’re worth considerably more.

Because everything I value about civilization will survive, and rebuild itself, if all the sciences and technlogies disappear, but the Humanities remain strong.  The converse, a world where the Humanities disappear but the sciences and technlogy remain strong, is the definition of a dystopia.

But, on top of that, I’m not entirely sure it’s possible.  We started with what we no call the Humanities.  The sciences, including the experimental method, emerged from that, and emerged from a very particular form of that.  Every culture has art and literature.   Many have philosophies.   All of them have religions.  Only this one developed the scientific method that got us antibiotics, brain surgery and the cell phone.  I don’t think that was accidental.

Robert says he gets suspicious when lots of different people have different arguments that get them to the same place, but I think what’s  going on here is a lot simpler than that.

I think Roger  Scruton, and  Victor Davis Hanson, and I, and a lot of other people, all see the same phenomenon and understand what it means, but don’t know how to explain or defend it. 

In any process that begins with observation, that’s going to be the case at the beginning.

In this case, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that it’s only recently that there has been any need to defend what seems to the three of us (and many others) as blatantly obvious:  people who enter the Great Conversation are profoundly different than they would have been without it, and the life of the mind is a better life, qualitatively, than what can be had otherwise.

Or, as Socrates is supposed to have said, the unexamined life is not worth living.

John asked what I meant by “populist,” and Robert said it was all right, there would be tensions in the conservative movement, but this is something bigger than a tension.

The modern American conservative movement starts with William F. Buckley, a man for whom the word “elitist” was a badge of honor, who defended the high art tradition against what he saw as the trashy trendiness liberals and leftists liked to pretend was “art.”  He defended high standards and elite education–and especially elite education in the Humanities–against what he saw as a dumbing-down of both education and taste.

But this makes Buckley the picture of the stuck-up liberal snob as portrayed by people like Limbaugh–he is, as a cultural symbol, the anti-Sarah Palin, which may be why his own son ended up endorsing Obama.

When Buckley set up shop in the Fifties, it was the Democrats and Liberals who championed the down-home, everybody-is-just-folks, who-do-you-think-you-are segment of the electorate.  It was the Republicans who demanded high standards in education and the arts.

If you go to the front page of the site and look on the right hand side, you’ll find a list of essays, one of which is called Why I Don’t Vote Republican.   The section called “The Stupid Thing”  goes into all this in more detail. 

But the bottom line is simple–you can’t appeal both to the high standards people and the just-folks people at the same time for long, because the just-folks people identify the very existence of high standards as snobbery.

Scruton is right about one thing, certainly, and that is that the Humanities are not shriveling because the left has taken them over and made them into forms of indoctrination, but because the Right has abandoned them as “elitist” as well.  Neither side of the political spectrum is defending real education any more.  The Left has decided it’s racist, sexist and homophobic.  The Right has decided it’s snobbish.

But, seriously and truly, if what matters is the survival of individual liberty, we could afford to lose all our science more easily than we could afford to lose what’s contained in the Humanities.

If we keep that second part, we’ll always be able to develop science again.  If we don’t–well, no other civilization in the world ever managed it, and there’s no reason to think we’d be able to invent it from scratch twice.

Written by janeh

June 10th, 2009 at 7:03 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Spending $40,000'

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  1. Just to be contrary – the price of something is dependent not merely on its scarcity, but also on its desirability…I mean, in how many people desire something, not on how desirable something might be to an individual or as a part of society. So merely saying it’s hard to find someone who can teach the humanities, the humanities are of interest to you and the humanities are of value to society does NOT mean it should cost $40,000 per year (or even $25,000 per year) to acquire them. Not if there is little demand. Lots of things that are pretty rare are also pretty cheap because no one wants them very much.

    Just as well, really, because even at $25,000 per year they’d be way out of line with anything I could afford for myself or for my child, if I had one. It’s just as well that books and online discussions are much cheaper. They come without course requirements, too.

    So, if the humanities are so important, how do you propose raising their profile and getting them more respect?


    10 Jun 09 at 9:40 am

  2. “Because everything I value about civilization will survive, and rebuild itself, if all the sciences and technlogies disappear, but the Humanities remain strong. The converse, a world where the Humanities disappear but the sciences and technlogy remain strong, is the definition of a dystopia.”

    Perhaos I’m being too literal, but the predictable result of science and technology disappearing is the collapse of civilization. Why? Two words, food and water.

    The only way to get enough water to large cities is to pump it. That requires technology. And we have 5% of the population growing the food for the remaining 95%. That requires an elaborate technology to distribute the food and advanced science to provide plant breeding and fertilizers.

    Jane, if you have to spend your time spinning and weaving and farming or have your family starve to death or die of exposure, you will not have time to think about Shakespeare.

    Jane, two science fiction novels that discuss this.

    “Dies the Fire” by S. M. Stirling
    “Lucifer’s Hammer” by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.

    “Lucifer’s Hammer” contains no “unnatural” elements and is straight forward hard science.

    And I’m not at all sure that science will arise again if we keep the humanities. It may well have been an accident that a small number of the “elite” that didn’t have to spend all their time just surviving happened to ask the questions that led to science.


    10 Jun 09 at 11:28 am

  3. This is why I ranted earlier. There are certainly “just folks” Republicans and conservatives, though it is entirely possible for an American political machine to contain people who are ideologically incompatible–in fact, it’s fairly common.
    But when you come right down to it, whatever modern conservatives MIGHT have done, had they the opportunity, the guards at the Academy gates from Eisenhower through Carter were good liberals, and these were the people who let in the barbarians, set them up as intellectual equals and moral superiors, and gave people deeply hostile to the defining traits of the West–objective knowledge and free and open debate in particular–charge of the gates. Liberals may carp at the results, but so long as they give the sworn enemies of the West a position as gate guards, they themselves can’t be taken seriously as defenders of the West.
    The first step to being serious in the Humanities in an academic setting is to say “people opposed to free debate or who think all facts are subjective will not be hired, and will certainly not make hiring decisions. Departments which hold that opinion is truth will go away.”
    No one is serious about money who accepts counterfeit currency. And no department or person who thinks opinion trumps facts has a place in a real university.
    Socrates–or Homer–knew well enough what happens to a city when you lose control of the gates, so any classical scholar should as well. And some of us remember enough of our Bible to know what happens when the trumpet gives an uncertain call.


    10 Jun 09 at 3:49 pm

  4. Robert and Mique might enjoy this book review from City Journal.

    http://www.city-journal.org/2009/bc0605bt.html which starts

    Jamie Glazov exposes the Left’s long history of cozying up to political murderers.

    Of course, in my case, its preaching to the choir.


    10 Jun 09 at 6:04 pm

  5. The study & application of the humanities requires that some people, at least, have the leisure to do so. Given the collapse of science, we would all have to return to subsistence farming to survive. Cities would empty out, since the current level of crowding without any way to raise food or, in many cases, any safe source of water, would entail mass starvation without it. However, after a long period of dislocation, lasting probably centuries, there would be people again who would have the leisure to begin study, as a result of rediscovering or reinventing better farming technology. At that point, we would need to have another Renaissance. Just as in Italy they rediscovered ancient literature, our descendants would have to discover not only what is to us ancient, but what is now contemporary. Assuming it had survived in some form over centuries which would probably be either desperate enough or indifferent enough to use books for fuel.

    I sincerely hope we never have to worry about it.

    I am all for wide education in the humanities–I wish I’d had it myself. However, there are a number of problems from the students’ point of view which any push to encourage it will have to deal with. They mostly boil down to money and availability. Like Cheryl, there is no possible way I could pay anything like $25,000 a year for myself or a child. We are far from alone in this. So the education would either have to be less expensive initially, or subsidized for students who wanted it. Another problem is finding a job afterward. I agree that the humanities education is highly valuable for its own sake, but if I don’t have a job, I don’t eat. So there would have to be some way for the students to obtain work of some sort afterward. And not driving cabs or flipping burgers, which is what happened to humanities majors who graduated with me in the 70s. Maybe further training in some vocation? Another problem is the availability of good programs, something which apparently far from current reality.

    I don’t think any of these problems are unsolvable, but we’re not anywhere close right now.

    Lee B

    10 Jun 09 at 11:51 pm

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