The Burden of the Humanities

Wilfred M. McClay:

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.

But they are not indestructible, and will not be
sustainable without active attention from us. The recovery and repair of
the ­humanities–­and the restoration of the kind of insight
they ­provide–­is an enormous task. Its urgency is only
increasing as we move closer to the technologies of a posthuman future, a
strange, ­half-­lit frontier in which bioengineering and
pharmacology may combine to make all the fearsome transgressions of the
past into the iron cages of the future, and leave the human image
permanently ­altered.

The mere fact that there are so many people whose
livelihood depends on the humanities, and that the humanities have a
certain lingering cultural capital associated with them, and a resultant
snob appeal, does not mean that they are necessarily capable of exercising
any real cultural authority. This is where the second sense of burden comes
­in–­the humanities as reclamation task. The humanities
cannot be saved by massive increases in funding. But they can be saved by
men and women who believe in ­them.