What the Humanities Reveal





My husband once sat in a faculty meeting at a university north of here. Cold coffee in front of them, the senior history profs stroked their beards and waited their turn to bemoan the uselessness of their discipline.

They were shocked a few months later when the sciences received a bigger chunk of the budget.

Still young and idealistic, Andrew was furious. If they could not defend the real-life importance of their own field, how did they expect anyone else to value it?

I never thought much about the pragmatic value of the humanities either, to be honest. I just knew it was my world. When, with alacrity, I dropped out of a business certificate and picked up a philosophy major, it felt like a guilty hobby. An indulgence.

Others see the humanities that way, too—but without the affection. They want college students (hell, even high school students) to cut straight to STEM and job prep, freed from those pesky requirements to understand the English language and the history of the world, the values that anchor and motivate us, and the deepest questions we wrestle. As Philomena Cunk would snap in one of her mockumentaries, “Pointless.

But had I gone on in business, how would I have made wise decisions without understanding the common yearnings of our species? Without insights into the painful and complicated history of race and immigration in this country, and the wildly different value systems in other cultures? Dostoevsky taught me about criminality. Thorsten Veblen explained how weirdly similar the habits of the very rich and very poor are, despite all the pleasure in the former and all the misery in the latter. Shakespeare was a primer on the eternal comedy and tragedy of human nature. Might all that have helped a bit more than Powerpoints and bullet lists, when it came time to deal with marketing and human resources and strategic communication?

A recent Washington University panel discussion asked what the humanities can bring to the study of cities. Guest scholar Davarian Baldwin, the Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies at Trinity College, spoke alongside three members of the university’s department of African and African-American studies: chairperson Shanti Parikh, assistant professor Samuel Shearer, and professor Geoff Ward.

Baldwin recalled his first urban studies conference: “I was thinking literature and design and how people build and imagine and grow and contest and love and dream and die. What they meant was bridges and tunnels and roads. I was like, ‘What the fuck. I’m talking about people.’”

He looked around at the crowded room—lunch plates balanced, forgotten, on laps—and underscored how important that wider lens is. “Especially now, when humanities are under siege.”

Ward grew interested in cities because they “tell stories about who they are. I’m interested in what those stories leave out.” He talked about layering information over the map of a city people think they already know, revealing its secrets and erasures. Parikh, who has been interviewing sex workers at truck stops in Africa, finds it “fascinating how the map changes from day to night. The evening use of space.” Maps drawn by the workers and their clients were very different from the local officials’ maps, she said, grinning.

Baldwin was nodding along; maps were his entrée to studying the city. Now he also reaches for police procedurals, speculative fiction, Chester Himes, any intellectual artifact that might texture his understanding. Because that is how the humanities work.

“Cities are projects in social justice,” Baldwin said. “Spaces to think about a different world.” He paused for a caveat: “A lot of times they are not that. Cities scare the shit out of me sometimes. But the possibility is always there. On the same block, you can have the stated claims and then the real, lived reality.” (Which is why he loves noir.) Cities are also “a space of provocation. It’s the density, the urgency. When things coexist in the compressed form of a city, it provokes different reactions from people.”

A city cannot be flattened into its concrete infrastructure, its measurements and statistics. Nor is it a sterile lab for scientific inquiry. A city smells like bus exhaust, urine, leather, Chinese takeout, garbage, hopeful spritzes of perfume, and a million small mysteries. Parikh’s work explores “the right to the city and how people claim that right. The publicness of cities, whether it’s public protest or public use of space. The placemaking that brings people together.” And then they retreat into their own enclaves, and sometimes they creep across the moral boundaries, try things that would shock a small town. There are “cultures of concealment” in a city, patterns no abstract theory can capture.

“Living in St. Louis, you can also see how cities become extreme sites of oppression, and how the politics of a city serves a select few,” she continued. “How discourse starts to justify who has access to what, creating certain sanctuary places”—and denying others sanctuary. Forcing relocation. Extracting resources for the benefit of a few.

“I was a teenage skater punk,” Shearer confessed. “I spent most of my time running from the police. That was a great way to map the city!” Later, he realized that “some urban conditions followed Black people and other urban conditions, usually the money, followed White people. That opened my eyes.” Now he immerses himself in complexity. He studies infrastructure (though not the way an engineer would), but he also studies the climate crisis and the relationships among city dwellers and their relationships with animals that have lost their habitat and crept into the city.

He is one of many young humanities scholars who were drawn to St. Louis. It is, as Ward put it, “an exciting place to think about history as a social force.” He looks, too, at the interstitial spaces, the connections between St. Louis and other cities. “We have these identities that are fragmented, partly rooted in where we are but also in where we have been and where we want to go. In this region, you have so many internally displaced African-Americans who fled the South and settled tenuously here. In addition to which you have refugee populations from different parts of the world.” St. Louis may think of itself as a static, stable, and conservative city, but it is made of flux. “How do you measure the flow of ideas? Or trauma? How much of the historical trauma in St. Louis is actually from Natchez, Mississippi?”

That is a human question, one that cannot be answered by data alone. “Algorithms,” Baldwin said wryly, “are made by people to slice out pieces of reality and present them as though they are whole.” The humanities work the opposite way, expanding the questions, taking in more and more of the whole. But they do not promise fat and fancy jobs, and our culture no longer elevates them, so students across the country are choosing STEM instead. “The End of the English Major,” just out in The New Yorker, quoted a young woman passionately interested in Italian language and literature but majoring in business (“It’s a safeguard thing”) and a young man who dove into Don Quixote and other classics for the sheer joy of it, but is getting a degree in data science.

In the past decade, the study of English and history in higher ed has fallen by a third. Scholars “have begun to wonder what it might mean to graduate a college generation with less education in the human past than any that has come before,” the writer notes. How do we map that?  Chart the drop in financial support for humanities education and overlay a “decline of democracy” chart, one of the experts suggests. The graph is identical.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.