The Burden of the Humanities

Wilfred M. McClay in The Wilson Quarterly:

What does it mean to speak of the “burden” of the humanities? The phrase can be taken several ways. First, it can refer to the weight the humanities themselves have to bear, the things that they are supposed to accomplish on behalf of us, our nation, or our civilization. But it can also refer to the near opposite: the ways in which the humanities are a source of responsibility for us, and their recovery and cultivation and preservation our job, even our duty.

Both of these senses of burden— the humanities as preceptor, and the humanities as task— need to be included in our sense of the problem. The humanities, rightly pursued and rightly ordered, can do things, and teach things, and preserve things, and illuminate things, which can be accomplished in no other way. It is the humanities that instruct us in the range and depth of human possibility, including our immense capacity for both goodness and depravity. It is the humanities that nourish and sustain our shared memories, and connect us with our civilization’s past and with those who have come before us. It is the humanities that teach us how to ask what the good life is for us humans, and guide us in the search for civic ideals and institutions that will make the good life possible.

The humanities are imprecise by their very nature. But that does not mean they are a form of intellectual finger- painting. The knowledge they convey is not a rough, preliminary substitute for what psychology, chemistry, molecular biology, and physics will eventually resolve with greater finality. They are an accurate reflection of the subject they treat, the most accurate possible. In the long run, we cannot do without them.