Does the study of the humanities have any value? (Part 1)

| November 15, 2010

Yes, it’s that old chestnut again: amidst the economic uncertainty of the times, is it prudent for universities to continue to waste money offering humanities degrees – and if so, which ones?

Of course, even with the opening sentence, we’ve already blundered across some pretty major, and by and large, unacknowledged, assumptions which tend to underlie much of the media discussion of this matter. These assumptions are not unusual. Indeed, the very fact of their being so natural is, as we shall see, interesting to consider when we examine the matter of how human rationality–traditionally the province of the empirically-based sciences, those very subjects arne duncan considers the benchmarks for viable courses of study–relates to the apparently frivolous field of the humanities.

But, let’s get back to economics, as this offers a fairly interesting angle on the matter at hand. For a start, the “economic uncertainty” mentioned above is not of the kind we’re commonly encouraged to identify as the main problem. No, it’s not that the economy is so shot to pieces that no corporation or organization can confidently forecast expenditure, and is thereby forced as a matter of necessity to shed jobs and cut costs. The notion that this was a myth was persuasively argued by the less ideological (dare we say, the more rational?) economic studies of the last few months.  It just so happens that the recession was the handy catch-all excuse used to justify boosting bottom lines by sacking large numbers of the work force, especially, in the case of law firms, those about to challenge the status quo in the baby-boomer partner circle, and imposing undeserved pay-freezes and benefit reductions on loyal and capable non-executive workers.

This means that the “uncertainty”‘ we face is not purely economic at all, unless you widen the traditional definition of economics to include what every economist, at heart, knows is the main driving force of economies: the psychology of the human animal, or, as my English master jokingly used to render it, animalis incapax ratio.

The uncertainty we are facing at this juncture is of how to deal with a hegemonic and monolithic form of irrationality, and, what is more, an irrationality which cannot be coerced or controlled by government. Even if the notion of a workable system of checks and balances–and with it, the enlightened guidance of objective-minded politicians–was ever possible in reality, it is not an effective counter to the effects and influences which stem from the macroeconomic picture. Though seemingly changed in form and structure over preceding centuries, it still bears all the hallmarks of the phenomenon which Thomas Hobbes identified under the biblical name of  the Leviathan.

Interestingly enough, Hobbes’s analysis of the Leviathan focuses very much on the need for a strong centralized government–under a sovereign monarch, no less–to safeguard against the chaos he saw arising from the ineluctable machinations of the chief proclivities of human nature, specifically competition, diffidence and glory. What we see from our present perspective would surely cause Hobbes to despair: strong central governments of all types (federal democracies, parliamentary democracies, monarchies), regardless of their apparent capacity to check abuses of power, entirely beholden to the surges and cycles of the international money markets which, however they are regulated, are nonetheless driven entirely according to the vagaries of human decision-making as it relates to the prospect of gain. If that doesn’t open the door to those very things–competition, diffidence, glory–which Hobbes saw in his Leviathan, then I will be happy to eat your hat.

But i won’t have to do that. What has been pretty well documented over the last decade or so is exactly how little our decision-making process relies on anything that can be called “reason,” and just how much of the eventual decision we end up enacting is influenced by inbuilt, or inherited psychological mechanisms, operating by circumventing abstract reasoning processes or exigent circumstantial factors of which we are entirely unaware. In fact, exactly this kind of inherent fallibility in reasoning and decision-making has been examined in the context of the money markets, most notably by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets. Whilst one of the central theses of this book is that human beings tend to overestimate the operation of causality and the explanatory scope pertaining to occurrences in daily events, it also does a comprehensive job of showing what this means for our ability to reason, or to choose an effective instrumental course of action for the long term.

The certainty attached to past data naturally leads to a misleading sense of predictive value. Combine this fact with the human propensity to skew emotional value, and, thereby, attention, to favor entirely normal short-term variations in value (e.g. day-to-day stock market fluctuations) to the detriment of the perspective attached to a longer term gain, and tendencies such as the Taleb distribution, or our proclivity to be heavily influenced by skewed distributions. Then there is our bias towards focusing on learning from “survivors” (of, for example, a stock crash) rather than the considerably larger, and thus more ‘normal’ population of “losers.” We get a picture of human reasoning which is considerably less systematic, highly prone to overvaluing insignificant factors, and hugely likely to overlook the value of significant factors amongst the ‘noise’ of data comprised to a large degree of random or chance occurrences.

But what has all this to do with the humanities?

Well, if you can be bothered to read it, an answer to this question will be attempted in Part 2.