Why the Humanities Are Indeed Worth Teaching

Credit…Illustration by Jack Smyth. Photograph by Getty Images/iStockphoto

To the Editor:

Re “I Teach the Humanities. I Still Don’t Know What Their Value Is,” by Agnes Callard (Opinion guest essay, Dec. 3):

As a fellow humanist, I understand Dr. Callard’s desire to avoid conventional pieties and, in the spirit of ongoing inquiry, to claim not to know the value of humanities disciplines. But it is still dispiriting to read this essay with the fear that only humanities undergraduates — well schooled in the reading of subtle texts — will understand the irony in hers.

As one who taught in an English department for almost three decades and went on to be the head of a rare book library, I do know the value of the humanities. Right-thinking humanists do not claim to make their students better people or even try to do so. Such a claim smacks of egotism and hubris. But we do claim to make students better critical readers, thinkers and writers — people better equipped as a result of studying complex texts to judge competing claims, to weigh evidence and to make better-informed judgments on a host of issues.

We humanists are the keepers and interpreters of our civilization, defined globally, and we are charged by tradition and consensus to evaluate that civilization in our teaching and scholarship. This is, of course, itself a conventional piety — but like many conventional pieties, it is a true one.

Because we have done so in the face of growing indifference and shrinking support, it is simply not helpful to have an academic colleague proclaim, even ironically, that she does not know the value of the humanities.

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