For the Sake of Public Discourse

Politicians continue to attack the Humanities and Social Sciences, most recently the governor of North Carolina reportedly asserted, “I don’t want to subsidize that [gender studies] if that’s not going to get someone a job.” While other posts on this blog (for example “You Just Watch Me” and “I Wonder What Caitlin Makes”) have challenged the assumption that Humanities and Social Science graduates have problems with employment, particular aspects of current public discourse clearly suggest that the skills that majors in the Humanities and Social Sciences hone need more attention.

As an example, the recent spate of articles on the “Nones” that followed the Pew Research findings last October, which suggested that more people select “no religious affiliation” than ever before, have been problematic. Numerous accounts, including items posted on CNN and the New York Times have conflated the “Nones” with humanists, atheists, and agnostics, even though the Pew Report, and often the details in the articles themselves, clearly state that the majority of “Nones” express some belief in God or some other Higher Power, and thus do not self-identify as atheists or humanists. This conflation reifies the group now known as Nones and fails to analyze critically those who make such conflations, whether they are journalists themselves or the leaders of particular organizations who might want to use the Nones to promote their own interests and conceptions.

Various scholars of religion, including myself, have presented analyses of the relevance of the survey data and the dynamics involved in the depiction of the “Nones” as a group (see “Creatio ex Nihilo” and “The Return of the Nones”). These more nuanced analyses reflect the value of scholarship in the Humanities and Social Sciences for addressing social dynamics that become significant components of discourse on the contemporary United States. But more importantly, the skills in critical thought, careful construction of arguments, and reflection on the complexity of processes of identification, which Humanities and Social Sciences majors often develop, are vital components of a rich public discourse that are too often undeveloped in the contemporary newsmedia. Perhaps the newsmedia and particular politicians should hire more Humanities and Social Science majors.

6 thoughts on “For the Sake of Public Discourse

  1. While there is no question about the real world utility of humanities and social science skills, and while they are always worth emphasizing, there is simultaneously a risk in giving too much attention to the employment-related benefits they offer. The problem is that those skills–save for those who teach them nearly exclusively–are not at the core of most humanities and social science research or intellectual commitments. The risk of making our core intellectual passions secondary and expendable is real. Thus the humanities as a job benefit must be balanced by attention to its broader contribution to informed citizenship. Even that, however, is not enough. The humanities, especially at its most fierce: challenges many widespread beliefs; makes students, parents, and politicians uneasy; and fundamentally remakes our relation to the world. The radically unsettling character of humanities knowledge must be part of what we promote. And certainly we must do so in forms intelligible to an educated public.

    1. In most cases, nuance is not a route to immediate rewards. I wonder if those of us who see nuance and critical thought as beneficial to public discourse should be more willing to enter that public discourse with nuanced, critical writing that is aimed at the general public.

    2. Excellent video on concision in the media. But, doesn’t the existence of a 3:22 video making this argument, available in a publically accessible medium, illustrate that the structural constraints, in some respects, are shifting? It would have needed to be longer to nuance that aspect of the assertion, of course.