Skip to main content

Essay excerpts from 'Do the Humanities Have to Be Useful?'

Media Contact

Media Relations Office

Do the humanities have to be useful? As you might expect, Cornell faculty members and students can concoct a wide range of creative responses to a question like that.

Eighteen essays about the humanities have been published in a volume edited by Provost Biddy Martin, G. Peter Lepage, the Harold Tanner Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and Mohsen Mostafavi, dean of the College of Architecture, Art and Planning, that will be distributed at a national humanities colloquium in Philadelphia May 12. The book also will be posted online.

"The essays are an outgrowth of the ongoing discussions about the humanities that we have held on campus since the roundtable last May," Mostafavi said. "We hope this collection will display the range and depth of thinking about the humanities at Cornell and lead to further thoughtful discourse."

"Do the Humanities Have to Be Useful?" was produced by Humanities Communications, Publications and Marketing, and the College of Architecture, Art and Planning dean's office.

Some excerpts:

"Imagine a World in Which There Is Only Fact," Katherine Crocker:

Do the humanities have to be useful? In every culture, by nature of our very existence, we have made them useful, because we cannot survive without them. We were touched by music before we knew it could make us smarter, we haven't always told stories only for their morals, and we don't love one another merely to perpetuate the human race. It's right to take a fierce pride and joy in our scientific advances, and no less right to foster a strong appreciation for the arts and stories. It's right to challenge each other with hard questions, and right to defend our own fields, but it's wrong to err on the side of the obvious, and forget the necessity of beauty, discounting books simply because they haven't got equations.

"Against Transparency," Brett de Bary:

Our times call for both hope and reticence on the part of those who would see themselves as humanists. To return to, perpetuate, or reinvent fixed oppositions and anchored perspectives is as fantastical as attempting to deny or transcend our recent history. Our sense of who we are, of who and what we represent, and of our histories themselves is expanding. Not for the first time (and not in the same way everywhere), new media make available information and images at a speed and scale that seem to overwhelm the very perceptual capacities that make us human. It is a time to listen and speak carefully about the human.

"For the Love of Books," Peter Uwe Hohendahl:

Libraries as we know them were built for collecting books and other printed materials; that is to say, they are part of the Gutenberg era. But how far will this era extend into the future? And how will the rise of the electronic media impact the status of the physical object called book? It is becoming increasingly apparent that the new media will also redefine the world of publishing and thereby the fate of the book. However, to what extent this development will transform the working conditions and practices of the humanities is not yet clear.

"What Is Essential to the Humanities?" Dominick LaCapra:

A spirit of liberality, generosity, and gift-giving can be proposed as essential to the humanities -- essential not in some dogmatic or exclusive sense (it may in fact also characterize significant aspects of work in the sciences) but in a sense that stipulates what is important and relatively distinctive but continually open to debate and contestation. For the latter qualities may also be seen as essential to humanistic understanding and exchange, and argument or even polemic can be undertaken in a liberal, generous spirit.

"On the Question of Value," Carolyn (Biddy) Martin:

The humanities, at their best, are a celebration of transport, transformation, and wonder. The work of critique, no less than of the creative arts, enables thought, discovery, and insight by ridding us of the rigidities and exhausted forms that kill curiosity and limit us to our fears. We place enormous hope as a nation in technological innovation and the sciences that drive it, as we should. Let us put as much hope in the inventiveness of language, art, and culture, in their ability to hold open the space of the other and to make us reflect not only on our hopes, but also on their limits.

"Talking Back to My Laptop: Technology design, usefulness and the humanities," Phoebe Sengers:

Let's face it: engineering is great for developing optimized solutions to problems, for figuring out how to get things done quickly and efficiently. But what it's not so good for is figuring out how technical solutions will fit into people's lives. What will be personally meaningful to me? How will a device resonate with my values? How will it alter the texture of my everyday life? Will this change be for the better? These are questions that technology designers are turning to the humanities to answer.

"In Praise of Nuance," Shawkat Toorawa:

I confess that, at first, I regarded the question 'Do the Humanities Have to be Useful?' as something of an affront. My instinctive response was 'Absolutely not! Why should they have to be useful? The humanities aren't about use or usefulness, they're about the life of the mind, about affect, about metaphor, about nuance, about sensibility!' Then I thought, 'But those are useful. How and what would life be without them? It would surely be life without music, without poetry, without humor. Good grief!'

Story Contacts

Linda Grace-Kobas