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In our new book, Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn From the Humanities, we argue that the best of the humanities can help transform the field of economics, making economic models more realistic, predictions more reliable and policies more effective and just.

But what do we mean by the “best” of the humanities? Is it what is often taught in colleges and high schools? If not, might that explain why so many have said the humanities are in “crisis”?

Go to Inside Higher Ed, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, or read reports from Harvard University and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and you will discover that the humanities are in decline. Enrollments and majors continue to plummet.

But humanities professors themselves, like a delicatessen owner selling spoiled meat and blaming business failure on the vulgarization of consumer taste, fault their students. “All they care about is money,” they complain. “Twitter has reduced their attention span to that of a pithed frog.”

We tell a different story. For decades, literature professors have argued that there is no such thing as “great literature” but only things called great literature because hegemonic forces of oppression have mystified us into believing in objective greatness. One of the commonly taught anthologies among literature professors, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, paraphrases a key tenet of cultural studies: “Literary texts, like other artworks, are neither more nor less important than any other cultural artifact or practice. Keeping the emphasis on how cultural meanings are produced, circulated and consumed, the investigator will focus on art or literature insofar as such works connect with broader social factors, not because they possess some intrinsic interest or special aesthetic values.” (Editor's Note: This paragraph has been updated to correct a statement about the anthology.)

But if Shakespeare and Milton are no more important than any other “cultural artifact or practice,” and if they are to be studied only “insofar as” they connect with other social factors and not because of “some intrinsic interest or special aesthetic values,” then why invest the considerable effort to read them at all? Perhaps students who don’t take literature courses are responding rationally to their professors’ precepts?

The language about “how cultural meanings are produced, circulated and consumed” gropes for the prestige of something hard, unsentimental and materialistic -- in short, for economics, as a literature professor might imagine it. It appears that humanists’ key strategy for saving their disciplines has been to dehumanize them.

And so we have a host of new movements, announced with the breathless enthusiasm appropriate for discovering the double helix. Sociobiological criticism has shown us how emotions and behaviors described in literature arose to serve an evolutionary purpose. Neuroaesthetics can explain why you love Dante (or Danielle Steele). Find something to count, and you can do digital humanities. In this spirit, we hereby claim to found the nano-humanities. We are not sure what it is, but we are sure that, like these other new disciplines, it will not involve real appreciation of masterpieces. Each of these dehumanities offers something of value, but they matter only if we already have deep appreciation of literature, which you can’t get by deaestheticizing, deliterizing or dehumanizing it.

Many humanists have difficulty in presenting their case because they are used to speaking one way among themselves and another way to outsiders. To the public at large, they still make statements about the value of great books, of the noblest things said by the most brilliant minds and of the need to know the Western heritage. Among themselves, such talk is, at best, hopelessly dated. Perhaps one reason literary scholars make an unconvincing case to outsiders is that they do not believe it themselves.

Students often come to college without having any grasp of what reading great works entails. Their AP and other exams test knowledge of facts about literature, not actually understanding it. Classes teach them to hunt for symbols, to judge writers according to current values, or to treat masterpieces as mere documents of their times. The first method makes reading into a form of puzzle solving, the second allows us to compliment ourselves on our advanced views, and the third misses the point that great literature speaks outside the context of its origin. Tolstoy is not great because he tells us about czarist Russia or the Napoleonic wars.

Each of those common approaches says true things, but none gives any reason to think that reading masterpieces is worth the effort. And that effort is considerable: Paradise Lost is difficult; War and Peace is long. And so the payoff would have to be large. Students would be fools to think otherwise.

No Shortcut

A good sign something has gone astray is that a work is reduced to a simple message. Only mediocre literature can be read that way. Otherwise, why not just memorize messages: love your neighbor (A Tale of Two Cities). Help the unfortunate (Les Misérables). Child abuse is wrong (Jane Eyre and David Copperfield). Do not kill old ladies, even really mean ones (Crime and Punishment). First impressions can be misleading (Pride and Prejudice). Don’t give in to jealousy (Othello). Obsessions can be dangerous (Moby Dick). Stop moping and do something! (Hamlet). There’s no fool like an old fool (King Lear).

If one cannot provide a convincing reason why any brief summaries will not do, then one has not really taught literature. The student needs to know why the book is worth reading, not just knowing about.

There’s no shortcut. One needs not just to analyze “the text” but to experience the work. People are always looking for some way around all that philistine human stuff, but with a novel, one has to identify with the major characters and coexperience their inner lives. Equating the work with the text is like equating music with its score, or expecting a blueprint of a house to keep out the rain. The humanities, especially literature, are about the human.

Here’s an alternative approach: Why not approach great literature as a source of wisdom that cannot be obtained, or obtained so well, elsewhere? There is an obvious proof that the great novelists understand people better than any social scientist who has ever lived. If social scientists understood people as well as Leo Tolstoy or George Eliot, they would have been able to describe people as believable as Anna Karenina or Dorothea Brooke. But not even Freud’s case studies come close. Surely the writers must know something! And great writers present ethical questions with a richness and depth that make other treatments look schematic and simplistic.

Moreover, great literature, experienced and taught the right way, involves practice in empathy. When we read a great novel, we identify with the heroine. We put ourselves in her place, feel her difficulties from within, regret her bad choices. Momentarily, they become our bad choices. Even when we do not like her, we may wince, suffer, put the book down for a while. The process of identification, feeling and examination of feeling may happen not just once but, in the course of a long novel, thousands of times. No set of doctrines is as important for ethical behavior as this constant practice in ethical thought or that direct sensation, felt over and over again, of being in the other person’s place.

The most important lesson novels teach is not a fact or a message but the skill of empathy and of seeing the world from other points of view. Practiced often enough, that skill can become a habit. One cannot get that lesson by reading a summary of “what the author is saying” or “analyzing the text.” One has to experience the work. What could be more important, for ethical and social understanding, than the ability to grasp what it is like to be someone from a different culture, period, social class, gender, religion or personality type? And one learns why even those broad categories won’t do, because one senses what it is like to be a particular other person. And that, too, is an important lesson: no one experiences the world in quite the same way as anyone else.

If we could more easily put ourselves in the position of others and put on a set of glasses to see the world in their way, we might very well, when those glasses are off, still not share their beliefs. But we will at least understand people better, negotiate with them more effectively, or guess what measures are likely to work. Just as important, we will have enlarged our sense of what it is to be human. No longer imprisoned in our own culture and moment, or mistaking our local and current values for only possible ones, we will recognize our beliefs as one of many possibilities -- not as something inevitable, but as a choice.

In short, the humanities, if humanists will only believe in them, have a crucial role to play in education. They have access to truths about human beings that other disciplines have not attained. And while other disciplines may recommend empathy, the humanities allow us to practice it. Their cultivation of diverse points of view offers a model for liberal arts education generally to follow. Properly taught, the humanities offer an escape from the prison house of self. We live on an island in a vast sea of cultures, past and present. The humanities allow us to leave that island and return to it enriched with the wisdom of elsewhere.

If you really want to save the humanities, make sure it is a version worth saving. Who knows, they might then just save themselves.

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