The Social Impact of Humanities 'Inventions'

At a time when many are questioning the value of humanities scholarship, the Supreme Court ruling on right to marriage shows the creative impact of such research, Johann Neem writes.

June 29, 2015

Are the humanities useless? Or can they produce “inventions” like the natural sciences? If our only understanding of invention is a technological product, perhaps the humanities are useless. But if we include new insights into culture, insights that transform our relationship with the world around us, then the humanities have real value.

Perhaps nowhere was this made more clear than in last week’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that marriage is a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution. The court’s decision, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, upholds the historical significance of marriage and recognizes the sanctity of the intimate relationships marriage makes possible.

Early in his decision, Justice Kennedy cites three historians’ works: Nancy Cott’s Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (2000), Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage: A History (2005), and Hendrik Hartog’s Man & Wife in America: A History (2000).

These scholars’ insights -- their “inventions” of historical understanding -- did not take place in a vacuum. They were the result of countless doctoral dissertations and “useless” journal articles.

Cott, Coontz and Hartog relied on and contributed to a vibrant community of scholars who, over the past few decades, sought to make sense of the history of American families. Scholars formed intellectual networks and new journals. They criticized each other’s work and refined understanding. They debated each other in print and at conferences.

And, over time, slowly and painstakingly, they taught us that American family life has a history, that the ways in which husbands and wives and parents and children related to each other, and the legal and cultural contexts that shaped those relations, changed over time. Like everything else, families are part of culture.

In short, the Supreme Court relied on the very academic infrastructure for research that is now being undermined by public defunding and efforts to make universities more focused on workforce training. It is the kind of academic infrastructure that would be threatened by efforts, such as those in Wisconsin, to weaken the tenure and shared governance protections that sustain academic freedom.

For Justice Kennedy, scholars’ “new insights have strengthened, not weakened, the institution of marriage.” Historians have demonstrated how marriage, once a way to organize family resources or a method by which men exercised governance over their dependents, gave way in the wake of the American Revolution to something more egalitarian and more affectionate.

In fact, our ideal of marriage as a relationship between two loving people deeply committed to each other was reinforced and popularized by the American Revolution, which challenged inherited ideas of inequality not just in politics but throughout society.

Historians, of course, did not make this happen on their own. Were it not for all the same-sex couples who dared to come out of the closet, all the organizers who built a movement and all the people who brought cases in the first place, the issue would not have been before us.

But if it were not for scholars of marriage, Justice Kennedy may not have had the knowledge before him to reach his decision. The value of basic research in the humanities cannot be denied. We need to reinvest in our research infrastructure so that we can continue to generate insights that will help us make sense of our most pressing public questions. Basic research in the humanities, it turns out, has a tangible social impact.


Johann Neem is a professor of history at Western Washington University, an affiliate of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, and a visiting faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.


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