In the final paragraph of my last column, I observed that the report of the New York State Commission on Higher Education slights – indeed barely mentions – the arts and humanities, despite the wide-ranging scope of its proposals. Those who posted comments agreed with David Small that “the arts and the humanities are always the last to receive any assistance.”

There were, however, different explanations of this unhappy fact. Sean Pidgeon put the blame on “humanities departments who are responsible for the leftist politics that still turn people off.” Kedar Kulkarni blamed “the absence of a culture that privileges Learning to improve oneself as a human being.” Bethany blamed universities, which because they are obsessed with “maintaining funding” default on the obligation to produce “well rounded citizens.” Matthew blamed no one, because in his view the report’s priorities are just what they should be: “When a poet creates a vaccine or a tangible good that can be produced by a Fortune 500 company, I’ll rescind my comment.”

Although none of these commentators uses the word, the issue they implicitly raise is justification. How does one justify funding the arts and humanities? It is clear which justifications are not available. You can’t argue that the arts and humanities are able to support themselves through grants and private donations. You can’t argue that a state’s economy will benefit by a new reading of “Hamlet.” You can’t argue – well you can, but it won’t fly – that a graduate who is well-versed in the history of Byzantine art will be attractive to employers (unless the employer is a museum). You can talk as Bethany does about “well rounded citizens,” but that ideal belongs to an earlier period, when the ability to refer knowledgeably to Shakespeare or Gibbon or the Thirty Years War had some cash value (the sociologists call it cultural capital). Nowadays, larding your conversations with small bits of erudition is more likely to irritate than to win friends and influence people.

Entire post here.

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