“And That’s Why No One Takes The Humanities Seriously”

In the second of its four issues in 2011, the widest circulating journal in the academic study of religion–the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (JAAR)–began opening each issue with a poem.

Then, in the following year, the journal switched from poetry to beginning each issue with art instead, accompanied by a statement by the artist, such as Amalia Masa-Bains‘s work that opens the March 2012 issue:

To the casual reader, I think it is unclear why the poems and now the art appear where they do. They are not connected to any of the scholarly articles but, instead, stand as a foreword or epigraph to the issue. They make a statement, of course (for why else are they here?), but one that is unclear. Because the periodical is devoted to publishing peer reviewed scholarly research on religion, it’s not evident why a prefatory message is even needed–editorials rarely appear in journals, except when announcing some change or retraction/correction, or, perhaps, when preparing readers for a issue-wide topic (such as a special issue or commissioned set of papers). But artwork? Poetry?

There’s a long history, of course, of theological and humanistic scholars of religion asserting that there’s some shared identity between so-called religious experience and what they often call aesthetic experience–the definitive statement of which was made by the German Protestant theologian Rudolf Otto early in his 1923 book, The Idea of the Holy:

Could the presumption that art and religion both provide some sort of privileged access to an extramundane, aesthetic experience be why JAAR opens with poetry and art? I’m not sure. But one thing I do know is that scholarly journals in geography or radiological oncology–two no less technical and thus as specialized fields as the academic study of religion–don’t open their issues hoping to engage readers by having an aesthetic tone set for the issue. Instead, these journals are technical places where specialized research is disseminated to a relatively small group of specialized readers.

Driving back to Tuscaloosa, from the airport, after attending the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion a couple of weeks ago, a few of us were talking in the car about this very issue, all of us puzzled by why a journal in Religious Studies was doing this. My colleague, Merinda Simmons, summed it all up when she simply said: “And that’s why no one takes the Humanities seriously.”


13 thoughts on ““And That’s Why No One Takes The Humanities Seriously”

  1. So, Russ, I want to push back a little here. I think the point that is best defended by your story is not that this is why people don’t take the humanities seriously, but rather, why people don’t take the American Academy of Religion seriously. Your beef here is completely legitimate. The American Academy of Religion wants to be taken seriously as a scholarly organization, but can’t decide whether it wants to foster a culture of evidence based, testible theorizing about the stuff we call “religion,” or whether it wants to be the World Council of Churches. I get that. But this isn’t a failure of the humanities. This is a failure of nerve among a collection of academics who, disproportiately, entered the field of religious studies as much to seek their own “spiritual truths” as to figure out why people say and do the strange crap they think and say and do what we’ll call “religion”; and they went to colleges where theological and anthropological approaches to the study of religion sat side-by-side in the college catalog and in office space. So your observation about the JAAR (something, by the way, that I’ve never actually noticed until you drew attention to it), is a testament to how confused the journal, and in turn, the organization it represents, are regarding their constituencies.

    But the humanities are premised on the idea that reflection and analysis of art, literature, and philosophical reasoning can enhance our understanding of how “meaning” functions in the lives of human beings. It’s difficult to do that without thinking about “meaning” in our own lives (since so much of what we know about others is analogized from what we know about ourselves). Poorly taught, those courses can degenerate into non-reflective “celebrations” of beauty or poetry or performance or “Truth.” But done well, those humanities courses have the capacity to generate as many lines of questioning as geography or radiology, if not more. While the answers to those questions may not be as definitive and measurable as the behavior of quarks or a higgs boson, the kind of reasoning involved is valuable for virtually any field that involves understanding human beings (diplomacy, sales, public service, fundraising, etc.). Is there a great deal of useless, self-indulgent, drivel to be found within these fields? Of course. This, I’d submit, is the nature of academics as a whole (just as it is the nature of every office environment where regular staff meetings are held). Have you ever spent time reading theories of education or theories of management (two fields that purport to be “practical”)? There’s as much nonsense in those non-humanities fields as anything you’ll find in the JAAR.

    The humanities have taken their lumps lately, but most specifically for the difficulty that Ph.Ds in those fields have in finding work. The trope of the barrista with a Ph.D. in Philosophy is a well-trodden one by now. But this is not a function of the uselessness of the field. On the contrary, it is precisely a function of the extent to which colleges and universities cannot imagine a college education without engaging in the humanities. And as such, they grow their doctoral programs in the humanities to make use of the cheap graduate student labor as instructors, generating a disproportionately large labor force for a disproportionately small labor market. If the bottom 50% of Ph.D. programs in the humanities disappeared tomorrow (as they should), there would be no more “crisis” in the humanities and parents would no longer have to fret when their kids tell them that they’re going to be Art History professors.

    And for the record, mid-career salaries for English and Philosophy majors are higher or comparable to those of Business Administration majors–the field that, as I was in high school and college, every “practical” minded person assured us was the wisest way to prepare for the “real world.” (See Carnevale, Strohl, and Melton, “What It’s Worth: The Economic Value of Colleg Majors,” published by the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce).

    The problem with perpetuating a field of religious studies that devolves into “spirit appreciation” is that you can get the same damn thing by going to a church or a synagogue or a temple (minus the boring readings and the academic jargon). Most people are fed various theologies and other schemes of mystification from the time they’re toddlers. So if the study of religion is to add value, it should be about demystifying rather than celebrating “mystery.”

    But this is a problem most fields in the humanities don’t suffer from. Most people in this country (for instance) read almost no literature at all unless it is assigned in school (and even then, they tend to avoid reading it). Learning how to interrogate a text is useful. Learning how literature can tell us something about the person, the society, and the times it was produced is useful. If they happen to enjoy reading it along the way, there’s nothing wrong with that (any more than there’s anything wrong with a kid thinking that Buddhists might have something interesting to say about life as they learn about how Buddhism authorizes distinctive social orders, identity constructs, and sentiments of affinity and estrangement).

    So my point is, if people don’t take the humanities seriously, that may say as much about the people doing so as it does about the humanities. Interestingly, ritual complaints have developed across Asia for the failures in their systems of higher education to engage the humanities at all, (purportedly) resulting in a comparative lack of creative thinking, facility for nuance, and effective cross-cultural interaction. There are many parts of the world where the humanities are not an element of higher education. Perhaps, over time, we can develop a sense of the value of humanities through cultural comparisons. Maybe I’ll learn that I’m full of crap. But as of now, I think the humanities takes enough hits without having to be conflated with the silliness the the JAAR.

  2. I don’t disagree with much in your comment, Craig–and so glad you took the time to post such a substantive comment. If you have just a little more time, browse over a few of my other posts on this site and I think you’ll see that I think the Humanities can be so much more than “art for art’s sake,” which is what I read the JAAR issues as doing (i.e., the presumption that there is something in these particular cultural items that need simply to be declared or presented, altogether missing the continual re- that is going on [re-presentation], involving choices, exclusions, power, etc., etc.). Which suggests to me that we don’t take ourselves, those within the Humanities, seriously–that, for some reason, we shy away from our own authority and expertise, thinking instead that our discourse ought to be universal and readily accessible to everyone (akin to the religious pluralist move by many of our colleagues…). I think that’s one of the problems here–we don’t study the meaning making process (as you rightly suggest we ought to) but, instead, all too often simply see ourselves as exegetes, interpreting meaning in the “right way”–the old “What did Shakespeare mean when he wrote…?” question still dominates our work and our classes. And thus we quickly slide into (as you suggest) a position that sees meaning everywhere, sees people interpreting meaning all over, and thus we arrive at the stance where we think we’re all equal, we’re all meaning-making, so everyone ought to be reading our journal and, voila, JAAR is on the slippery slope of becoming a coffee table magazine. Expertise has disappeared…. So why should anyone take us seriously since we’re all just making meaning… It’s the old question Jonathan Z Smith writes about in one of his essays on pedagogy–being asked by a politician why taxpayers should support our work since we all read novels…. I see the artwork/poetry as the tip of this iceberg and lament that this is what the Humanities is, in many cases…. As my various other posts hopefully indicate, I think there’s a higher standard they ought to be held to.

    • I find the move to critique the field as “a bunch of opinions” that results in the disappearance of expertise interesting–we are not all meaning-makers, we are not all equally creating this thing we call meaning. With our class on Authenticity on my mind, starting out with that film “F is For Fake”–where the experts were reproducing the market (here reproducing meaning), I’m curious here about what exactly “expertise” means here. There doesn’t seem to be a problem, from what I understand for the AAR, it seems like that is precisely what the AAR has, many many experts… Lots of people study Christian Origins, Tibetan Buddhism, etc. This, though, is addressed when you say that we need to ” study the meaning-making process”–now this is a different kind of expertise, not a newly present expertise, but it’s a shift in what “expertise” means–another economy of signification is being produced.

      Reading the caption at the bottom of that painting makes me think of the book that Michel Foucault wrote on “This is not a pipe”–citing Magritte and many others, he is extrapolating complicated theoretical structures/language/discourse from these pieces of “art”–is that not exactly what you are wanting people to do? It seemed like Magritte and others were very much learned in theory and language and expressed this expertise in a work that was relevant to our own class discussing discourse, similitude and so on. This person whose art appears in the front reads spatial theory and harnesses elements at hand to express such things in practice–whose product looks differently than an article with citations–means seem similar in that regard though (those theories are bubbling behind it to express something) While yes, I do see that a confessional or spiritual journey kind of examination of life that purports itself to be scholarship is problematic, I think that humanities is a realm where a variety of mediums dealing with such things are present–while you get pretty schema, blue-prints, and models in engineering–we have “artists” expressing theoretical expertise. While the example with the picture is different than the poem, I do still think it’s relevant. But that’s what makes us so dynamic–we can look and work with things in a multitude of ways.

      I think there’s a reason why such a fuss occurred in the mind of one of a rather influential social theorist over a couple of pictures of pipes in a room. And for that ivory tower people think exists– if it does, it has many a level too I guess… a tower that might turn out to be on the back of a nice big ol’ green turtle.

        • It seems that an egalitarian individualized notion of the opinion — a thing that everyone has and I guess is inherently valuable– is not useful at all depending on how we look at what the role of scholarship is or the role of “knowledge.” I’m sympathetic to the idea that there is expertise and that, indeed, some people’s words that are coming out of their mouths are not useful or valuable at all for better understanding how particular things work. Someone doing scholarship would want to position themselves as being valuable precisely because it helps to better understand how things work. Also, they would argue for their value precisely because they are more qualified to speak about something in particular (at least more qualified than the other guy) a distinction they worked many hours/monies to conjure for themselves and/or to qualify themselves in the eyes of others (PhDs seem to be a trademark for knowing one’s stuff).

          I’m not sure quite how this relates to something like a Protestant view of “religious experience” or a “personal faith”– but it seems to be rather disruptive of this model where everyone is as qualified as anyone else, but in the expertise model, if someone was to talk about such a thing as “personal faith,” they’d have to prove themselves qualified to say they have any kind of authority on the issue. I’d assume, around here at least, they’d cite many a verse from a King James Bible and cite perhaps a pastor or two and they are now “experts” on what it means to have a personal faith (i.e. reproducers of a particular insider discourse).

          This move of reproduction of particular insider discourses–this is the move that is the object of study then I suppose–it’s not about having opinions about such matters, but scholars utilizing ideas to critique such matters whose qualifications are based on evidence, research, and expertise. I guess, though, it seems rather difficult when the ones who are doing the studying are vastly part of the enterprise whose sole existence relies on being reproduced as a valid means of doing things.

          • Precisely–the knowledge/opinion opposition intersects with this issue inasmuch as many presume that everyone has faith or everyone has experiences but, according to yet others, the simple expression or performance of these supposedly inner states does not constitute scholarship.

  3. I agree about the “crisis of conscience/riddle of identity” that continues to plague the AAR. Is it a “celebrate religious diversity” multiculturalism club? Is it a “we need to figure out why humans do this stuff we call religion” science? Or is it a “God works in mysterious ways” quasi-church?

    More broadly, though, I think “no one takes the humanities seriously” because there are no constraints on what counts as evidence in favor of a claim/argument/hypothesis. In other words, the entire field consists of a bunch of opinions. Which is fine — nothing against having opinions — it’s just that it’s hard to take them seriously when in other fields, you can’t just say whatever you want and get away with it.

  4. Jason and Russ, I think I understand what you’re trying to say, but I think you’re overstating your case. Smith’s use of “economy of signification” comes in the context of a discussion about ritual. And he uses the expression to illustrate how even the nubulous and murky world of what “counts” in ritual can be understood as having been transgressed by seemingly trivial actions.

    Well, while I will certainly grant that the “economy of signification” in the humanities does not meet the standards of a science (almost by definition), to claim that “there are no constraints” and you can “just say whatever you want and get away with it” is not a fair or particularly useful characterization of what actually happens within these disciplines. After all, scholars in the humanities are engaged in a discursive activity grounded in the realm of persuasion. They seek to persuade others in their fields that their observations regarding literature or art, for instance, help us to make sense of these things in a manner that leaves us believing we know something valuable about them that we didn’t know before. The best scholars do this a lot. The worst are ignored completely. And to succeed, they have to engage existing traditions of interpretation in meaningful ways.

    While one can theoretically “say whatever one wants,” the reality is that nobody’s going to listen to people who don’t play by those basic rules–the rituals of humanities discourse.

    I should also point out that I think all of us would classify philosophy as a field in the humanities, but philosophy has a fairly clear set of rules grounded in logic. While first principles may, in the end, leave us with little more than “opinion,” the means by which one proceeds from those first principles are circumscribed by a well-developed economy of signification.

    And opinion isn’t limited to the humanities, of course. As far as I can tell, even a field like economics, purporting, as it does to be a (dismal) science, devolves into opinions rooted in selective (cherry-picked?) collections of statistics pretty often. Archaeology is grounded in science, but some of the crazy-ass assumptions made about pre-historic communities based on the flimsiest of evidence makes even the most post-modern readings of Shakespeare look like sober analysis. Why pick on the humanities?

    So I think that telling us that “the entire field consists of a bunch of opinions” may tell us something about the humanities, but not a lot more than the typical New York Times piece on the American Academy of Religion annual meeting tells us about what actually happens at those meetings.

    And I think in the end, what bothers me about the statement that “nobody takes the humanities seriously,” is that it’s seems to be an unnecessarily ad hominem attack on these fields. After all, the truth is that many people take the humanities seriously (and we work with those people every day). Moreover, as Tolstoy said about unhappy families, each unhappy family (each sub-field within the humanities) is unhappy in its own way, with its own set of problems. Many people are far better equipped than I am do defend these fields. The field I know the best is, in my opinion, a mess. And on that score, the basic point that Russ makes about the JAAR is spot-on.

  5. By the way, Russ, I somehow managed to miss your longer reply to my comment before actually writing the above, and only saw your “economy of signification” comment. I don’t know how I missed that.

    Roll Tide.

    • I’m talking about the Humanities as they are practiced by some, and you’re talking about Humanities as they are practiced by some. I think I’m using Humanities as it’s practiced at its best, and you’re looking at it as it’s practiced by its worst. I’m as guilty of the broad brush-stroke, but I just want to fill out the picture that has only been partially painted as a an ensemble of unaccountable opinion spouters who say whatever the hec they want. That’s all.

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