Spotlight on...
Donald Drakeman, author of Why We Need the Humanities

In this post, Drakeman explains why we will always need the Humanities...

Today, there seems to be impressively widespread agreement on what the humanities are good for: it’s not hard to find business managers and leading academics all saying that they aren’t good for anything.

Where the agreement breaks down, of course, is that the hardheaded managers tend to think that if you’re not good for something, then you’re good for nothing.

For scholars, the point is that the humanities don’t need to be good for anything. They’re good in and of themselves. Not good for something. Certainly not good for nothing. Just good.

Policymakers are stuck in the middle with a very difficult job. If the National Health Service doesn’t have enough money to provide potentially life-saving drugs to cancer patients, the government needs pretty good reasons to allocate its limited resources to philosophers and historians.

Sometimes they can’t think of any. Just last summer, TIME magazine reported that ‘[m]ore than two dozen Japanese universities…will reduce or altogether eliminate their academic programs in the humanities and social sciences, following a dictum from Tokyo to focus on disciplines that “better meet society’s needs.”’

Later reports suggested that the effects of the policy may be less extreme than first expected, but it was entirely believable – perhaps even in keeping with the tenor of our technological times – that governments would find better uses for the taxpayers’ money than funding the humanities. Especially in tough times, people can be tempted to see non-technological subjects as luxury goods, easily abandoned in favor of more practical pursuits. But, in fact, our policymakers need really good scholarship across the humanities to figure out how to deal with some extremely important – even economically important – policy issues.

Many superb scholars have made eloquent cases for the intrinsic value of what I call the humanities – that is, the range of fields of study that set out to illuminate the human condition, irrespective of what faculty or department houses them within today’s universities. The humanities are worth doing, many have argued, just for their own sake, even if they have no useful purpose. I agree completely.

But, as a constitutional history scholar who spent decades as a life sciences entrepreneur, I came to realize that the so-called ‘real world’ actually needs the humanities much more than it realizes. There are, in fact, important connections between the humanities and essential aspects of modern life, including the impressively large portions of the economy that relate to our health.

My argument for society’s current and future need for the humanities thus takes the opposite tack from many of the standard defenses. Rather than starting with what humanities scholars do, and pointing to places where that might be useful, my focus is on the question: What do policy-makers need? It quickly became clear that some of those critical needs are addressed within the study of the humanities. In fact, it seems as if the more governmental power is concentrated in small, unelected bodies, the greater the reliance on humanities scholarship has been.

Let’s start with our health, and the health of our economy. Why do governments around the world invest over $100 billion a year in life sciences research? In brief, it is the governments’ way of doing well by doing good. As the Medical Research Council has announced, its goal is to turn “fundamental research into measurable positive impact in health, innovation and wealth creation.”

Healthier citizens through new medicines, and wealthier communities from new R&D jobs, comes from a combination of the government funding and the assumed multiplier effect from private investment in the amount of 150% of the public support. On top of that are the potential health benefits, leading one major American university study to predict a $70 billion return on a relatively modest – by life science standards – $380 million state investment in a new area of technology. With numbers like this 200-fold cash return, it’s little wonder that governments consider shifting their budgets from philosophy to pharmacology.

But we need to look more closely at the assumptions behind that economic analysis – because, believe it or not, philosophy may be more important to that rosy health and wealth equation than the economists realize. One of the economists’ key assumptions is that society will continue to pay premium prices – even really high prices – for new medicines.

In most of Europe and many other countries, healthcare is provided by the government. Organizations like the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, known as NICE, decide which medicines will be made available to patients covered by the National Health Service. NICE’s cost effectiveness decisions influence at least 30% of the global pharmaceutical market, and, therefore, affect the economic prospects of one of the world’s largest and most research-intensive industries. In making these decisions, they constantly need to make value judgments that, as they admit, “relate to society rather than science.”

Will every citizen be allocated an equal amount of the national medical budget, or will the chronically ill get a bigger share? Should both taxpayers and the unemployed be treated the same? Are some diseases less worthy of expensive treatments than others? Should saving lives trump treating debilitating but non-fatal conditions? These questions—and many more of a similar nature—are not the focus of degree programs in medicine, statistics or pharmacology. They are, however, just the kinds of issues with which the humanities have traditionally wrestled, from literature and history to religion, philosophy and politics.

In a white paper on these ‘Social Value Judgements,’ NICE says the hardest question – one they don’t know how to answer – is the issue of distributive justice. Not seeing societal consensus on any particular approach, NICE has chosen to follow the recommendations of two Harvard medical ethicists to pursue merely procedural justice. This uncertainty has left one local health authority – composed mostly of doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals – specifically requesting ‘guidance from philosophical analysis.’ (How often have we hoped someday to hear, ‘Is there a doctor of philosophy in the house?’)

Scientists and physicians can figure out whether a new drug actually extends lives, and mathematicians can calculate the costs, but the STEM fields, by themselves, cannot provide a considered judgment about who should have those benefits and at what price. In fact, the more high-tech and high-cost the futuristic medicines get, the harder these age-old questions become.

That same need for the humanities appears when legal rather than medical decision-makers are in quandary. I wrote an article titled, ‘The Church Historians Who Made the First Amendment What it is Today,’ because the United States Supreme Court built its church-state jurisprudence on the work of 19th century ecclesiastical historians. Those historians were probably over-claiming the roles of their own churches in the genesis of the First Amendment’s religion clauses, but that’s what the Chief Justice found when he searched the history books for the Constitution’s original meaning.

During Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearings, Senator Kyle asked: ‘[T] he president … said that in hard cases, adherence to precedent and rules of construction and interpretation will only get you through the first 25 miles [of a marathon]. … He says the critical ingredient in those cases is what is in the judge’s heart. … [D]o you agree …?’

In response, Justice Kagan said, ‘[I]t’s law all the way down. … [P]eople can disagree about how the constitutional text or precedent . . . apply to a case. But it’s law all the way down, regardless.’

When we peer all the way down to the bottom of judicial decision-making, especially about civil rights and liberties, we constantly find the humanities. Searches for original or historical meanings call on archivists, historians, and philosophers of language, while those preferring a living text have regularly sought out the work of ethicists, political philosophers, and other humanities scholars. In fact, the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, which outlawed racial segregation in the schools, looked to the latest research in social psychology and sociology.

The language of the Constitution, on its face, does not tell us what it means for citizens to have the equal protection of the laws, how freely religion can be exercised, what constitutes a law ‘respecting an establishment of religion’ or who gets to ‘keep and bear arms’. Nor does it delineate any clear set of rules by which justices can discover whether the death penalty is ‘cruel and unusual’, or if pornography, flag burning, political speeches and commercial advertisements are all equally deserving of constitutional protection. Time and again, the justices have reached out to works of scholarship when they talk about what the constitutional language did mean at some point in the past, or what it should mean in our complex modern society.

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The cartoon cover of a 1935 issue of The Princeton University Tiger humor magazine showed Depression-era graduates lined up at their graduation ceremony. Along with every liberal-arts diploma, the dean handed out a loaf of bread. A few months later, the alumni magazine reported on students’ shifting academic interests in a table titled, ‘Trend Away From the Humanities.’ When jobs were in scarce supply, humanities majors were down by nearly a third from the go-go years of the ‘roaring twenties.’ Meanwhile, engineering tripled.

During difficult economic times, today and in the future, society will inevitably be tempted to rush towards investments with an immediate financial impact. That’s not really our strength in the humanities, and we will need to remind the decision-makers that some of the most powerful arms of our governments have, time and again, turned to humanities scholarship to guide them in making important decisions, even economically important ones. They – and we – should not forget that society’s need to understand the common good invariably points directly to the humanities.


* The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of Palgrave Macmillan

About the author 

 © SpringerDonald Drakeman is Distinguished Research Professor in the Program on Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame, USA, a Fellow in Health Management at the University of Cambridge, UK, and a biotechnology entrepreneur and executive.