What You Learn in a Humanities Degree

The more I learn, I find myself with fewer and fewer things to say.

As a humanities student, I studied many “theories.” One theory is historicism, which says that things are the products of their historical settings. Example: At a career mixer, a well-dressed alumnus, class of ’70, approaches a sophomore journalism major. “The first thing you should do once you’re financially independent and you’ve got some money saved up is make a down payment on a house. Nobody will ever stop needing houses,” he says. The advice is a historical artifact, extruded from a certain moment in American politics and a certain set of assumptions about credit scores and work contingency and citizenship status. The student may react with with doubt; her doubt is also historical. It encodes her upbringing, and a different relationship with houses and banks and the word independent.

We could apply any number of other theories to this interaction. There is a theory that explains why the man feels no reservation in handing out unsolicited advice, and another that explains why the student smiles and sips her iced tea instead of challenging him. There is another theory that explains why conversations about what to do with wealth are appropriate at a university career mixer—what the conversation implies about the prestige of the university, the status of the alumnus, the prospects of a nascent journalism career. Given a set of questions about a situation, or “text,” we can use contrasting theories to harvest competing answers to the questions. Then the merits of the theories can stand in for the merits of the answers. (If we are especially cunning, we might presuppose which answers we want to find and then focus on the theory that guides us there. You can bring up this point as a lazy counterargument next time I say I am using an “interdisciplinary approach” to argue for an idea you disdain.)

When I was a student, my favorite theory was what we might call discursivism, a literary theory that says, essentially, that language is simultaneously “about” both language itself and whatever it is that the language at hand is talking about. “Nobody will ever stop needing houses” is not just a phrase, but a catchphrase, an idea whose snappy wording embeds a claim about its salience. The secret message is something like: If what I am telling you right now isn’t true, then how come I can say it so succinctly? Indeed, anytime we raise our voice, we are secretly transmitting a claim about our own act of speech: I am able to put these thoughts into words, therefore they must have some merit.

Theories are quite powerful, because they allow us to convert small amounts of information into large amounts of information. (More words have been written about Shakespeare than Shakespeare ever wrote.) We use theories to put words into others’ mouths. For example, Americans tend to think of themselves as formidable amateur psychoanalysts. It is not uncommon to hear Americans dismiss each other by saying they are “projecting” or “deflecting” or “repressing” something. Psychoanalysis is a theory, a theory according to which we spend life restaging traumatic incidents from childhood in a hopeless search for resolution. Like many theories, psychoanalysis rejects the possibility of objective observation; thus you can talk in circles by telling your opponent, “No, I think you’re repressing!” Without realizing it, we are two levels of abstraction away from the issues at hand, but because culture has made us comfortable with pushing theories around like pieces on a chess board, both parties proceed in the illusion that material gains are at stake. In fact, when we pit theories against each other, what we are gaining is information: about the matter in question, yes, but also about the theories themselves, their breadth and depth.

We cannot break free of theories. Whether or not you have received a traditional education, your thought patterns have been shaped by your experiences of people and your interactions with “texts.” A theory doesn’t need to have a Wikipedia entry for it to color your thoughts. Thus, one of the goals of a liberal education is to equip you with a wide range of theories, so that in an unfamiliar situation, you can try out various theories in succession as a corrective against your default narrative, the hope being that you will test out various responses and select the best one. However, being theoretically versatile—I have called this narrative fluency—is more likely to make us good at justifying our prior beliefs (whether or not they are correct) than at reexamining and overturning them.

Thus, I am finding myself with less and less to say, because I am paralyzed by the sense that if I manage to say something convincing, it will be so only because I have applied a theory in a novel or resonant way, and not because the underlying idea has merit. I have spent so much time playing with theories that nowadays, I sometimes myself testing facts against beliefs rather than beliefs against facts, so that when I encounter a set of facts that resist one of my beloved theories, I search for better facts instead of modifying my assumptions.

In courtroom dramas, lawyers begin their closing arguments by saying, “Let’s let the facts stand on their own,” and then they proceed to enumerate the facts, thereby preventing them from standing on their own. When—not if—the facts are inventoried, curated, rehearsed, ordered, voiced in a measured tone, calibrated for this trial and these jurors, then the facts are being coerced to an invisible theory. We are awash in theories, and the only way to let the facts stand on their own is to say nothing.