When I was a Master’s student a decade ago at the University of Virginia, someone had posted on the department office wall a cartoon in which a young boy described his dad’s new girlfriend. She seemed really smart and motivated, the boy explained, because she talked about getting her “M.R.S. degree.”
“I think it’s something in the art history department,” he quipped.
The arts have, of late, been a punch line, if not a punching bag, in debates about the role of higher education. Frank Bruni points out that it’s not that new a phenomenon, but maybe it was President Obama’s dig at my field of art history in a 2014 speech that made it feel fresh.
The standard line of defense for the fine arts these days seems to be that they foster critical thinking, which is problematic. It’s not that it isn’t true. The argument is that exposure to methodologies that question conventional approaches to knowledge – say, feminist theories of art history – is beneficial in the creation of good citizens, which is undeniably true. But it’s beside the point. After all, biologists and physicists challenge conventional wisdom and push the envelope too. (Check out a compelling critique, from a slightly different point of view, of the critical-thinking argument here.)
The arts are not important solely because they do what other disciplines in the humanities can do. Rather, they’re important because they do what other disciplines cannot. They are crucial because they are our humanity. As Alissa J. Rubin wrote, the destruction in Aleppo, Damascus, and countless other cities, and the looting of countless archaeological sites, including Dura-Europos (which I routinely teach in art history survey courses), means the loss not only of buildings, mosaics and frescos but also of the knowledge that different religions coexisted in this now war-torn space. And losing that history only enables those who’d wish to marginalize or eliminate groups with whom they differ. It’s about a lot more than buildings.
Are the arts a luxury? Maybe. Do your students ever ask you this? Friends outside of academia? If you are in a STEM field, what is your opinion of the arts and the purpose of the academy? How have the humanities impacted your work? It seems utterly silly to me that the humanities need to be defended at all, or that they’re derided as luxuries. We couldn’t do without them.