This Doubtful Strife

Let me be umpire in this doubtful strife.
Henry VI. Act IV, Scene 1.


“Mike Carey is out as CBS’s NFL rules analyst,” wrote Claire McNear recently for (former ESPN writer and Grantland founder) Bill Simmons’ new website, The Ringer, “and we are one step closer to having robot referees.” McNear is referring to Carey and CBS’s “mutual agreement” to part last week: the former NFL referee, with 24 years of on-field experience, was not able to translate those years into an ability to convey rules decisions to CBS’s audience. McNear goes on to argue that Carey’s firing/resignation is simply another milestone on the path to computerized refereeing—a march that, she says, reached another milestone just days earlier, when the NBA released “Last Two Minute reports, which detail the officiating crew’s internal review of game calls.” About that release, it seems, the National Basketball Referees Association said it encourages “the idea that perfection in officiating is possible,” a standard that the association went on to say “is neither possible nor desirable” because “if every possible infraction were to be called, the game would be unwatchable.” It’s an argument that will appear familiar for many with experience in the humanities: at least since William Blake’s “dark satanic mills,” writers and artists have opposed the impact of science and technology—usually for reasons advertised as “political.” Yet, at least with regard to the recent history of the United States, that’s a pretty contestable proposition: it’s more than questionable, in other words, whether the humanities’ opposition to the sciences hasn’t had pernicious rather than beneficial effects. The work of the humanities, that is, by undermining the role of science, may not be helping to create the better society its proponents often say will result. Instead, the humanities may actually be helping to create a more unequal society.

That the humanities, that supposed bastion of “political correctness” and radical leftism, could in reality function as the chief support of the status quo might sound surprising at first, of course—according to any number of right-wing publications, departments of the humanities are strongholds of radicalism. But any real look around campus shouldn’t find it that confounding to think of the humanities as, in reality, something else : as Joe Pinsker reported for The Atlantic last year, data from the National Center for Education Statistics demonstrates that “the amount of money a college student’s parents make does correlate with what that person studies.” That is, while kids “from lower-income families tend toward ‘useful’ majors, such as computer science, math, and physics,” those “whose parents make more money flock to history, English, and the performing arts.” It’s a result that should not be that astonishing: as Pinsker observes, not only is it so that “the priciest, top-tier schools don’t offer Law Enforcement as a major,” it’s a point that cuts across national boundaries; Pinsker also reports that Greg Clark of the University of California found recently that students with “rare, elite surnames” at Great Britain’s Cambridge University “were much more likely to study classics, English, and history, and much less likely to study computer science and economics.” Far from being the hotbeds of far-left thought they are often portrayed as, in other words, departments of the humanities are much more likely to house the most elite, most privileged student body on campus.

It’s in those terms that the success of many of the more fashionable doctrines on American college campuses over the past several decades might best be examined: although deconstruction and many more recent schools of thought have long been thought of as radical political movements, they could also be thought of as intellectual weapons designed in the first place—long before they are put to any wider use—to keep the sciences at bay. That might explain just why, far from being the potent tools for social justice they are often said to be, these anti-scientific doctrines often produce among their students—as philosopher Martha Nussbaum of the University of Chicago remarked some two decades ago—a “virtually complete turning from the material side of life, toward a type of verbal and symbolic politics.” Instead of an engagement with the realities of American political life, in other words, many (if not all) students in the humanities prefer to practice politics by using “words in a subversive way, in academic publications of lofty obscurity and disdainful abstractness.” In this way, “one need not engage with messy things such as legislatures and movements in order to act daringly.” Even better, it is only in this fashion, it is said, that the conceptual traps of the past can be escaped.

One of the justifications for this entire practice, as it happens, was once laid out by the literary critic, Stanley Fish. The story goes that Bill Klem, a legendary umpire, was once behind the plate plying his trade:

The pitcher winds up, throws the ball. The pitch comes. The batter doesn’t swing. Klem for an instant says nothing. The batter turns around and says “O.K., so what was it, a ball or a strike?” And Klem says, “Sonny, it ain’t nothing ’till I call it.”

The story, Fish says, is illustrative of the notion that “of course the world is real and independent of our observations but that accounts of the world are produced by observers and are therefore relative to their capacities, education, training, etc.” It’s by these means, in other words, that academic pursuits like “cultural studies” and the like have come into being: means by which sociologists of science, for example, show how the productions of science may be the result not merely of objects in the world, but also the predilections of scientists to look in one direction and not another. Cancer or the planet Saturn, in other words, are not merely objects, but also exist—perhaps chiefly—by their place within the languages with which people describe them: an argument that has the great advantage of preserving the humanities against the tide of the sciences.

But, isn’t that for the best? Aren’t the humanities preserving an aspect of ourselves incapable of being captured by the net of the sciences? Or, as the union of professional basketball referees put it in their statement, don’t they protect, at the very least, that which “would cease to exist as a form of entertainment in this country” by their ministrations? Perhaps. Yet, as ought to be apparent, if the critics of science can demonstrate that scientists have their blind spots, then so too do the humanists—for one thing, an education devoted entirely to reading leaves out a rather simple lesson in economics.

Correlation is not causation, of course, but it is true that as the theories of academic humanists became politically wilder, the gulf between haves and have-nots in America became greater. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz observed a few years ago, “inequality in America has been widening for decades”; to take one of Stiglitz’s examples, “the six heirs to the Walmart empire”—an empire that only began in the early 1960s—now “possess a combined wealth of some $90 billion, which is equivalent to the wealth of the entire bottom 30 percent of U.S. society.” To put the facts another way—as Christopher Ingraham pointed out in the Washington Post last year—“the wealthiest 10 percent of U.S. households have captured a whopping 76 percent of all the wealth in America.” At the same time, as University of Illinois at Chicago literary critic Walter Benn Michaels has noted, “social mobility” in the United States is now “lower than in both France and Germany”—so much so, in fact, that “[a]nyone born poor in Chicago has a better chance of achieving the American Dream by learning German and moving to Berlin.” (A point perhaps highlighted by the fact that Germany has made its universities free to any who wish to attend them.) In any case, it’s a development made all the more infuriating by the fact that diagnosing the harm of it involves merely the most remedial forms of mathematics.

“When too much money is concentrated at the top of society,” Stiglitz continued not long ago, “spending by the average American is necessarily reduced.” Although—in the sense that it is a creation of human society—what Stiglitz is referring to is “socially constructed,” it is also simply a fact of nature that would exist whether the economy in question involved Aztecs or ants. In whatever underlying substrate, it is simply the case that those at the top of a pyramid will spend less than those near the bottom. “Consider someone like Mitt Romney”—Stiglitz asks—“whose income in 2010 was $21.7 million.” Even were Romney to become even more flamboyant than Donald Trump, “he would spend only a fraction of that sum in a typical year to support himself and his wife in their several homes.” “But,” Stiglitz continues, “take the same amount of money and divide it among 500 people—say, in the form of jobs paying $43,400 apiece—and you’ll find that almost all of the money gets spent.” In other words, by dividing the money more equally, more economic activity is generated—and hence the more equal society is also the more prosperous society.

Still, to understand Stiglitz’ point requires understanding a sequence of connected, ideas—among them a basic understanding of mathematics, a form of thinking that does not care who thinks it. In that sense, then, the humanities’ opposition to scientific, mathematical thought takes on rather a different sense than it is often cracked up to be. By training its students to ignore the evidence—and more significantly, the manner of argument—of mathematics and the sciences, the humanities are raising up a generation (or several) to ignore the evidence of impoverishment that is all around us here in 21st century America. Even worse, it fails to give students a means of combatting that impoverishment: an education without an understanding of mathematics cannot cope with, for instance, the difference between $10,000 and $10 billion—and why that difference might have a greater significance than simply being “unfair.” Hence, to ignore the failures of today’s humanities is also to ignore just how close the United States is … to striking out.


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