U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Let Us Perish Resisting

A few years after I graduated from college, when I was short on cash, short on space, and short on hope that some significant portion of my days might ever again be spent in reading and writing and thinking about something beyond my immediate material circumstances and familial duties, I made a decision that I have wished many times to take back:  I sold almost all of my textbooks.  Not just the overpriced and (for me, anyhow) under-studied behemoth from Intro to Econ, nor my well-used but no longer useful grammar and exercise book from French I and II – those weren’t the only texts I culled from my little library.

unamuno1No.  I gathered up Robert Lowell and Alice Walker, Edmund Spenser and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lucretius and Virginia Woolf, Lorraine Hansberry and Aristotle, Montaigne and Nietzsche, Flaubert, Boethius and Baudelaire, and many others besides – most of them authors I had never so much as heard of before I set foot on the Stanford campus. Norton critical editions, and anthologies of fiction and poetry, Penguin Classics, and mass market paperbacks I had acquired for classes — when I had been compelled to choose between buying my books and, say, eating more than one meal a day for a few weeks, I chose the books.  I don’t regret those purchases.

Still, I wish I hadn’t sold them.  Because what I let go of when I let go of those books was not just a visible reminder of lean years and tough choices.  I also let go of my own history as a reader, as a learner – all the notes and exclamations and questions I had scrawled in the margins, the asterisks, the dog-ears, the passages underlined two or three times because they rang true to my young heart or my old soul.

But I didn’t sell all my books.  Among the texts I kept were Augustine and Shakespeare, Dickens and Faulkner, Spoon River, Thomas Wyatt, Jane Austen and George Eliot and Thackeray so deft and droll, Dante and Cervantes and a few other stragglers besides, including Miguel de Unamuno.

Before I was an English major, I was a Spanish major, and I had been introduced to Unamuno in the second half of the Spanish lit survey at the end of my freshman year. Alas, the two volume anthology we used in the survey, with its excerpt from Unamuno’s beautiful Vida de Don Quijote y Sancho, was among the books I sold.  But the standalone volume of Del sentimentio trágico de la vida – that I kept.

Unamuno’s existential anguish and his quest to find or fashion some hope in the face of the miserable fact of our mortality struck a chord with me.  I might not have understood everything he was arguing — or arguing against– on my first read through, but I understood that.

In the face of certain disaster, what do we do?unamuno2

That question, that problem, has been much on my mind lately, particularly as it relates to the state of higher education, the fate and future of the university as an institution or even as an idea.

What do we do?

Does it even matter?

Thinking of those questions, I was reminded this morning of a passage in Unamuno where he quotes Sénancour – somewhat disapprovingly, as it turns out, a fact lost on me the first time I read the chapter.  Here is the quote, and my best attempt at a translation of it:

L’homme est périssable. Il se peut; mais, périssons en resistant, et, si le neant nous est réservé, ne faisons pas que ce soit une justice.

Man is perishable.  That may be.  But let us perish resisting, and, if Nonexistence is what awaits us, let us not act in a way that would make our fate seem just.

Unamuno, as it turns out, rejected Sénancour’s willingness to allow that “le neant” was our collective end.  He would not surrender to nihilism.  Still, Unamuno’s ensuing development of his own argument for faith – faith not instead of doubt but rooted in doubt and flowing from doubt — was a means of doing precisely what Sénancour urged, without conceding the rationale for it.  Instead, Unamuno inverted that rationale, saying in effect, Let us resist despair together, and so perish not.

I sold my old books in a time of great financial distress and profound personal despair (the two were connected, as they often are).  The paltry sum I received for them just exacerbated my sense of sorrow and loss.  But at the time I didn’t know what else to do. I did know, however, that no matter how much of my little library I felt that I had to give up, there remained a portion that under no circumstance would I willingly surrender.  Somehow I knew that if I had let those last few books go, I would have gone right with them.

Let us resist perishing.  But if we must perish, let us perish resisting.  That’s not an ethos they teach in Intro to Econ, not even at Stanford – perhaps especially not there, fons et origo of Silicon Valley.  Economic arguments for the value of a humanistic education will not save the humanities, and we should stop making them.  The value of what we study, of what we teach and what we learn, is that such learning can help keep the human spirit alive. That may be the surest ground upon which we can stand.  If that ground at the very heart of the university is lost, whatever still remains will hardly be worth keeping, whether or not we ourselves are by some miracle still standing.

19 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is such a lovely, moving piece–which I will think about as I get rid of the large majority of my books this summer for economic reasons.

    I was curious about the Unamuno quote, particularly his critique of the French romantic writer Sénancour. I did a bit of skimming, and concluded that this critique is based on Sénancour’s rejection of divine belief–of course, Unanumo’s Christian brand of existentialism was a way of transcending the belief in human finitude that began to dominate 19th century European philosophy. Unamuno would end up looking back to the Spanish mystics as a source of inspiration, in order to transcend both Catholic dogma and the potential nihilism of European modernity’s growing distance from God. Personally, I side with Sénancour’s declaration because of its agnosticism and how it grounds humanity on the here and now, beyond the dictates of fate. But both signal the ethos of doubt as humanistic resistance and creation that one not only thinks but feels through the human spirit. Onward!

  2. Thanks Kahlil.

    I am sorry to know that you are going to be downsizing your library. I have to say, unless space is a huge issue, I hope you can find a way to skip having to do it at all. Though it was a few years ago now, I think I got maybe $28 or $30 for a stack of books that had cost me twenty or thirty times that much when I bought them. And, as I said above, it’s not like buying them the first time around was easy. So I hope you can find another way. But you do what you have to, of course — though perhaps it will be the case for you, as it has been me, that you will be able to re-build your library again.

    On Unamuno’s critique of Sénancour — yes, that’s how I read it now. In one way there’s barely a hair’s breadth of difference between the course of action that they recommended, but a profound difference, I suppose, in the way they frame their initial doubt. Though I am deeply sympathetic to Unamuno — to all that he wishes were so and all that he insists ought to be so — I too side with Sénancour as Unamuno excerpted him here, for reasons similar to yours.

  3. Before I say what follows, I’m all for perishing while resisting. Swimming in the world of ideas requires, at times, clinging to a few rafts of ideals, or some idealism.

    I’m warming, however, to economic arguments for the value of a humanistic education—but *only* as one prong in the necessary multi-front war of defending and promoting those endeavors. I’ve long been against those utilitarian, practical, and business-like defenses. They offend my ideals. But believe them necessary in the current and historical context of higher education in the United States.

    I say this after having attended two-day conference on liberal education in Asia and America. This comparative endeavor focused on China and the United States, though the conversations ranged widely.

    We ended the conference with a discussion of Daniel Lee Kleinman’s essay, “Sticking Up for Liberal Arts and Humanities Education: Governance, Leadership, and Fiscal Crisis.” His piece appeared in this book: Gordon Hutner, Feisal G. Mohamed, eds, A New Deal for the Humanities: Liberal Arts and the Future of Public Higher Education (Rutgers Press, 2015). Kleinman’s essay is on pp. 86-100.

    The piece begins by looking at the arguments made, primarily by Republican governors over the past 5-10 years, against majoring in liberal arts degrees. That explication occurs over five or so pages. Then Kleinman points out, using Hoftstadter, the deep roots of utilitarianism and practical thinking, or practicalism, in the history of thought in the United States. Because of that deep currrent, Kleinman argues we must address utilitarian concerns when arguing for, or defending, the liberal arts and humanities. We can’t leave out employment prospects and strengths of the liberally educated in business terms. Kleinman rightly notes that many business leaders and executives have defended in the liberal arts in this fashion too. In addition, statistics and some social science research demonstrates that outcomes for liberal arts majors in our capitalist society are much better than expected in the medium and long term. In sum, there is in fact utilitarian value to the liberal arts and humanities. As such, that aspect should be utilized in defenses.

    Kleinman does point out downsides to this kind of defense—i.e. the trend toward an “audit culture” in higher ed means we might unearth contradictory data and trends we don’t like. Also, liberal arts and humanities education offers cognitive benefits that are not easily measured but still very positive overall. Even so, measurement of purported “value” in higher ed is a trend that is “not likely to go away anytime soon” (p. 96)

    Kleinman doesn’t say this, but I think he is also implying that if we act now, or soon, we have a chance to take control of that discourse—to shape and promote in on our terms. That is no small benefit.

    Returning to LD’s point in the piece above, while I don’t like this line of defense/offense, I am persuaded by Kleinman of its necessity in the broader front of war that hasn’t gone well for historians, philosophers, and other humanities scholars. Let’s not allow our idealism to cloud our own practical thinking, even while those ideals propel us to smarter and broader defenses of the life of the mind. – TL

  4. Thanks for the comment, Tim.

    I understand the need to counter arguments about the “uselessness” of the humanities — the people who write (and slash) budgets are working on a different rationale than “What would sustain the human spirit?” So we have a problem of apologetics: making the best case we can for our fields in terms that people who don’t share our values would understand.

    For me, these kinds of apologetics are best engaged in by way of rejoinder, as a counter to the canard that majoring in a humanistic field of study is going to lead to a terrible financial future. The problem is that this apologetic strategy too easily moves from rhetorical stance to rationale — instead of standing on humanistic grounds and making an economic argument, we surrender the humanistic argument (and territory) entirely and try to fight the battle on economic / utilitarian turf. That’s a risky gambit.

    On utilitarianism — absolutely that’s at the heart of broader attitudes toward higher education, and for much farther back than the history of the United States. Of the seven “liberal arts” in the medieval university, grammar (which included the study of ancient literature and out of which eventually grew — compressing/simplifying greatly here! — the study of modern literature and also, to some extent, history) was relegated to something like a “service department” for the “hot” fields of rhetoric and logic, the “useful” disciplines that could lead to a great career in canon law. Rashdall’s history of the medieval university, vol. 1, offers some interesting discussions of how disrespected the grammarians often felt and were within the larger faculty. And from then to now, “grammarians” have been making strategic arguments about why their disciplines should continue to remain at the heart of a university education.

    In substance if not always in name, that defense has often drawn, fittingly enough, on a “dulce et utile” framework — but the “utile” has been until recently an argument for moral usefulness — liberal arts as a way of shaping moral character, or forming citizens for participation in democracy, or preserving the liberty of the human spirit before the menace of totalitarianism etc., etc. The purely pecuniary argument for the usefulness of the humanities is a very new thing in the long tradition of humanists defending their place in the university against bean-counters who find such studies a waste of time. And we should not put our eggs in that basket, because that is not our basket. That will never be our basket.

    In my piece on the canon for the Chronicle I pointed out that the current blather about “transferrable skills” is best understood as a rhetorical concession to the narrow vocationalism currently defining higher ed funding. It’s a defensive maneuver — like the Stanford school of Arts & Humanities a few years back discussing how to make the PhD “relevant.” I understand the desperation, and the sense that one needs any port in a storm. But not all ports are what they seem.

    Believe me, I’m always ready to talk to my students or parents or anybody else who asks about the value of studying the humanities, and I’m prepared to make the case that the stereotype of humanities field as “useless” is completely false, that English and history and literary studies prepare students for work in a broad range of jobs as much as (and sometimes better than) any other field. But that’s a concession, a way of countering implicit and sometimes explicit objections, moving them out of the way to make a positive case for the study of the humanities as something that has value entirely apart from the job market, value that cannot be converted into pecuniary terms.

    Probably a losing argument. But I will keep making it anyhow. If we surrender that ground from the outset, imagining that we can somehow win it back later, there is literally nothing left worth fighting for.

    • And I guess I should note, as a parenthetical, that the particular financial circumstances in which I found myself when I had to sell my books had absolutely zero to do with what I majored in as an undergrad. It doesn’t much matter what Stanford students major in; the name on the diploma opens doors. A big part of my problem, amusingly (amusingly now, anyhow), was that I didn’t know that, and so I didn’t try a lot of doors when I had the opportunity. Live and learn.

      • (And, for that matter, it pretty much doesn’t matter what a student majors in coming from *any* university in terms of “job preparation” for most available jobs. That’s the part of the utilitarian argument that we need to emphasize: the utility is in getting the college degree, not picking the supposedly sure-thing major.)

  5. I’d never heard of Senancour before and I really like that quotation, esp. the last part, from “et si le neant…” to the end. Probably not an original thought with Senancour, but the way it’s expressed is great.

    I think it has, reading back from the 20th cent., a Sartrean ring or flavor (or maybe I’m just thinking of the title of L’Etre et le neant — sorry, too lazy to put in the accent) . Anyway, excellent post.

  6. LD: You and I are not far apart in the vein of not believing a liberal arts education can ever be reduced to a commodity that can be exchanged on the market. Haven’t believed it, don’t believe it, and never will believe it. And I have talked to Kleinman, and don’t think he believes it either.

    I look at economic arguments for the “value” of the liberal arts as a poor, poor relation to the main values of that education–creativity, critical thinking, historical thinking, etc. Utile et dulce pales in comparison to the Verum, Pulchrum, et Bonum that the humanities and liberal arts offer us. Obtaining a grasp on those ideals through study, dialogue, writing, and good books help us transcend the material drudgery of mere professionalism, paper pushing, and constant service to others in confines of clocks, cubicles, and computer screens. And its those ideals to which we must lead all who will listen.

    For what it’s worth, I think that industrialization and the so-called information age have provided capitalist contexts for higher education that *require* us to improvise—to say “and…” to every kind of defense of the highest ideals I outlined in the paragraph above. I cited Kleinman as a source, not the authority, for arguing. We live in strange times with new adversaries in high political places—and some adversaries who were formerly our allies (i.e. neoliberals). We need to marshal every rhetorical weapon, and every small-arms tactic, to fend off the assault under which we find ourselves. – TL

  7. For what it’s worth, I tend to think, as a matter of principle—and as one with a commitment to the Authority of the Good by way of displacing or overthrowing the “aristocracy of Capital”—that we should refrain from “economic arguments for the value of a humanistic education,” even if they are but “one [pragmatic or rhetorical] prong” in this “war.” Let the usual suspects make them. Why? Because by engaging in such arguments we are compelled to make debilitating concessions (keeping in mind such arguments are meant to convince or persuade others, and even if they do not succeed in doing so, can have some influence or impact) to a presupposition, assumption, or presumption that is ubiquitous in a Liberal capitalist democracy, namely, an “economism about values” that accords undue deference to individual desires and preferences insofar as questions of value (or ‘worth,’ or the ‘good,’ say, of education, or health care, housing, or…) are a function of what individuals qua individuals desire. More to point, a suppressed premise cherished by those who prefer (hence, this rules out Tim!) to make utilitarian or consequentialist arguments on this perilous plane is that the “best life for the individual is one of consumption” (of x, be it of different kinds of goods, like education or, hedonic or sophisticated pleasures, entertainment, what have you), such consumption being (in)valuable insofar as it promotes happiness or contributes to one’s (crudely ‘welfarist’) satisfaction. The source of value, in short, lies solely and supremely with the individual (consumer): “to know whether or not something is valuable we must look to the desires of individuals” (e.g., for market-oriented success, labor market participation, socio-economic status, a ‘good job,’ self-esteem, economic security…; these are, to be sure, among the welcome or beneficial by-products of such a humanistic education or education simpliciter). If we abstain from making “economic arguments” on this score, we open ourselves up to the possibility of endorsing and acting upon what Michael Luntley* terms “the Good Principle: There is more to the achievement of the good life than the satisfaction of individuals’ actual preferences.” Market mechanisms in our society, on the other hand, operate apart from or are bereft of, an antecedent theory of the Good (such a theory concerns the society or polity as a whole, not individuals as such, although it is perfectly capable of respecting the dignity and rights of the individual as members of that society or polity). Deference to the authority of the Good can be found among those “repositories” or pictures of the “good life” among certain reference groups, communities, and traditions (or worldviews), many of which, historically and sociologically speaking, have been smothered or deformed or displaced by the aristocracy of Capital.

    Contemporary (neo-)Liberal capitalist democracies, have organized the economy primarily for the benefit of Capital. And capitalists “believe the free market, driven by the profit motive, is the most appropriate way of organizing the distribution of goods and services in society” (Luntley). In making economic arguments “for the value of humanistic education” we are directly contributing (at least in an ideological sense) to the maintenance of the aristocracy of Capital. We are making a default concession to the fact that our labor power should continue to be treated as a commodity (‘something to be exchanged, bought and sold’ in the labor market). In effect, to speak of the “economic value of humanistic education” is to implicitly permit the property of “labor power” to trump (if only in the minds of others) those properties that constitute human beings and their social life more deeply and widely (hence, we speak of the economic value of a good education, education as a good investment, what kind of job one can or should get as a result, and so forth). Labor power is not and should not be our defining or constitutive property: when it is, dehumanization results (we might think here in terms of a tendency toward, or contributing to an ethos of…). An alternative to such an argument could speak to those “goods,” like education more generally, which are best thought as part of the necessary conditions for the exercise of (a community model of) citizenship in a (would-be) democracy, or as indispensable to the minimal exercise of or aspiration to active or effective moral agency. Education should not, in other words, be viewed as part of “a general market of goods the distribution of which is to be bargained for in one way or another” (as often happens, literally or metaphorically, in public policy debates). Rather, education (higher and otherwise, liberal or humanistic), should be counted among those “goods possession of which amounts to absolute need if an agent is to have any chance of achieving the good life.” We need, writes Luntley, to take “the supply of education outside the arena of goods over which we engage in distributional debates.” We need therefore, to steadfastly refuse to make economic arguments, lest we commit ourselves to those presuppositions, assumptions, or presumptions that directly or indirectly contribute to the ongoing reign of the aristocracy of Capital.

    For those of us who look forward to the supersession of capitalism, I think there are hazards (perhaps best expressed in terms of coherence, consistency, and transparency) associated with a belief that we “need to marshal every rhetorical weapon, and every small-arms tactic, to fend off the assault under which we find ourselves.” (I confess to having expressed similar sentiment with regard to rhetoric and tactics in the context of animal ethics and rights.) Rather, our rhetorical “means” and sundry tactics are best crafted so as to be in harmony with—or at least compatible with—our ends, lest we needlessly prolong even a limited or partial realization of our values and ideals, or obscure the true value of our beliefs and commitments.

    * Please see his book, The Meaning of Socialism (Open Court, 1989).

  8. I find myself divided between LD and Tim. Both posts seem to turn on the question of whether we should use different forms of logic when faced with different rhetorical settings. LD, do you believe we need to use the same arguments (say) in writing a piece for the _Chronicle_ as we do when speaking to parents at admissions events? I suspect most of us (Tim included) hold something close to L.D.’s views when we are sitting in the privacy of our offices or library carrels, but tend to articulate views closer to Kleinman’s when working the “History Majors” table at a recruiting event for prospective students and parents (something I’m required to do about twice a year). In my experience, it’s very, very hard to look the parents of a prospective student in the eye and tell them that, despite spending $200,000 on college, their child’s History degree will have no immediate economic value. Of course, the student and her parents are already so steeped in the rhetoric of utilitarianism and economic efficiency that one needs more than five minutes to explain why their conceptual framework is severely limited, if not downright wrong. And those five minutes are supposed to be spent in pitching your school in a positive way so they don’t enroll somewhere else! In short, I find myself making economic arguments even though I don’t really believe them. Maybe that’s a betrayal of the good old cause?

    Anyway, having now made my confusion public, I’ll just mention two readings that have enhanced my ambivalence on this issue. The best articulation of (something like) LD’s position that I know comes in Stefan Collini’s chapter “The Character of the Humanities_ in his _What are Universities for?_ (frustratingly, published only in a UK edition). He makes two important points: 1) that many public discussions about the humanities proceed without a very good grip on how specific humanistic scholars actually work–i.e. what it is that a philosopher, historian, or literary critic actually does in their scholarship, how persuasion and knowledge actually work in those fields (i.e. through acts of judgment rather than experimentation); and 2) that justifications for what we do are primarily _internal_ rather than _external_–their value has to be recognized implicitly by the inquirer. You can’t _make_ someone recognize the value of historical imagination any more than you can make them like abstract art or appreciate opera; you can point to the values of these activities, and describe them in lavishly engaging terms, but the person’s interest must ultimately proceed from some inner recognition. Since it’s NBA playoffs time, I’ll just point out how absurd it would be to ask a professional athlete to justify their pursuit of athletic excellence in economic terms. We seem to have different criteria for such “pointless” activities as sports (and I say that as a sports fan) b/c they are enjoyed / consumed by millions, rather than thousands (like scholarship).

    On the other hand, Sheldon Rothblatt’s _Tradition and Change in English Liberal Education_ argues that the liberal arts were explicitly utilitarian in 17th c. England–as preparation for the active public life of a gentleman (this is the same argument that Grossman makes when he says history serves as good preparation for law school or government). While such studies were, as LD points out, bound up with a form of moral education, it was also (and always) deeply economic — people studied logic, rhetoric, and grammar because they wanted to get jobs at court or in the clergy, not because they wanted to have transcendent aesthetic experiences with poetry or be “critical thinkers.” So I think it’s good to recall how much disciplinary rationales can change over time.

    For most of the past thousand years, studying history was seen as “useful.” (I base this wild generalization on two books that have some surprising overlaps–Bruce Kimball’s _Orators and Philosophers_ and James Turner’s _Philology_). The humanities were very “utilitarian” disciplines for much of their history because they were regarded as pre-professional fields–they paved the way for specific careers in law, church, and government. It was only recently (say, since 1850) that they have come to be associated primarily with “useless” pursuits, with shaping moral character regardless of economic outcome (the mid-19th c. seems to be the takeoff point for this type of argument–see treatises by Arnold, Newman, etc.). In short, the rise of the research university seems to have profoundly altered the meaning of the liberal arts — changing it from a terminal “degree” to an “undergraduate degree”. Thus, up until about the 19th c. the fields we now call the humanities (which excludes philosophy, says Turner) were practical fields of study. Only in the last 150 years or so, with the rise of additional layers of professional training, does the B.A. degree become “pointless,” because it doesn’t lead directly to a career, as it did for much of its history since the Middle Ages.

    Does this add anything to the discussion or simply muddle the waters even more?!?!

  9. Thanks for these additional comments.

    I am working on a longer version of this piece, so don’t want to say too much more here at the moment.

    I would tell parents that students at the most elite universities in the country have an advantage: those universities still uphold the idea and ideals of a liberal education and seek to provide such an education to all their students. But why should a liberal education be a boutique luxury good for the privileged few? If it’s good enough for the students at Harvard or Stanford, it’s good enough for the students Hudson Valley Community College or Stanislaus State University. Why should their children get any less out of college than I did?

    That’s what I would say to parents, I suppose — so it’s unlikely that anybody will be asking me to man the History table at the undergraduate major fair.

    But, as you might expect from someone who let go of Nietzsche and Aristotle but held on to Unamuno, I tell my students who might be tempted to grouse about having to take “useless” subjects like history and English that life is short, and it goes by fast, and it’s a wonderful thing to have the opportunity, for this brief time in what I hope will be a long and happy life, to spend time thinking about things that have some intrinsic value, things that aren’t particularly related to being a more productive employee, but are related to finding happiness and seeking wisdom. Nobody at Pitney Bowes or State Farm Insurance is going to insist that some portion of their employees’ work week be spent considering the questions raised by the study of history, or literature, or art, or music. But college students have the chance to do that now — indeed, they are expected to do that now. So they should make the most of the requirement, even if it doesn’t seem like it will have anything to do with their future work life, and maybe something they think about now will be a source of insight or strength or wisdom for them later.

    In other words, I sound old and out of touch.

  10. While I agree the humanities should not be the province of the elite and shouldn’t be seen as a luxury, isn’t that what they have been primarily in the United States? “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematicks and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, musick, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” – John Adams, 1780 letter to Abigail Adams

    It is in keeping with Kim Weeden’s data on parent’s household income and choice of major. Median household income of an English major $99,533 vs Law Enforcement/Firefighting major of $66,625. Of course going to college and graduating already skews up the income ladder.


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