The Humanities Do Not Matter Because of the Capital They Create

Why do the humanities matter?

This question is at the root of the funding crisis the humanities has been experiencing for many years now. The market has decided that the humanities matter if and only if they produce good workers after graduation. And since they do not produce good workers, then they must not matter after all. Or so the argument goes.

Many humanists have responded with charts and diagrams showing all of the ways that humanities matter to producing good workers. Look at these writing skills! Look at these LSAT scores! Look at all of the ways that humanities graduates are valuable to the market after all!

While I don't want to ascribe anything other than good intentions to humanists who've tried to defend their discipline and jealously guard the scraps they are given, this response isn't enough. To respond to the crisis in the humanities by saying that the humanities can win grants and produce skilled workers after all is to already give up the terms of the game. We can not win by demonstrating that the humanities matter because they produce good workers. That is partly because they do not. It is also because that is not why the humanities matter.

So why do the humanities matter?

The humanities matter because they produce good people. Good people, however, are not good workers. Good people want to be paid a fair wage for their work. Good people want to have agency over the wealth they produce and to what ends that wealth is aimed. These are not traits of a good worker.

Good people are not good workers, but they are good citizens. They care about their fellow people, and they try to further the interests of others as well as their own. In other words, they cooperate.

The public good is served by creating more good people, not more good workers. That is why the humanities matter. And that is why the argument that the humanities must be constantly self-justifying by its appeal to the material goods it produces -- whether these are "research incentives" or "demonstrated value" or good workers -- will always fail.