Only You Can Justify the Humanities, and Other News


On the Shelf

José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior, Reading, 1892.


  • In 2013, two social scientists from the New School announced that reading literary fiction seemed to make people more empathetic, according to their research. The literary community, more desperate than ever for the imprimatur of the sciences, latched on to their study like a thirsty deer tick: here, at last, was proof of our value. But it was not meant to be, friends. New researchers have failed to replicate the results of the original study, leaving the humanities to wander alone again in this cold, dark, fiercely utilitarian nightmare we call “life.” Joseph Frankel writes, “It’s still an open question why psychologists, the media, and laypeople alike are so interested in the possible benefits of reading fiction … Those both in and outside of the humanities have ascribed moral benefits to literature and art as ‘a rescue operation’ for these disciplines at a time when their worth is under scrutiny. It’s hard not to see arguments that literature might make people more empathetic, more moral, or more socially adept as a corrective to the perceived lack of ‘return of investment’ when it comes to the arts. ‘I don’t hope or believe that social psychology is needed to justify the humanities,’ [the social scientist] Kidd told me. But in a culture where science is sometimes treated with more gravity than the humanities, this research can be used to do exactly that.”

  • Charles Simic has gone leafing through Jim Marshall’s Jazz Festival, a photo book of … well, of jazz festivals, from the fifties and sixties. And he likes what he sees: “Those who call jazz America’s one true original art form are not wrong. Looking at these relaxed and thoroughly integrated audiences one is liable to forget that these were the years of the civil rights movement when images on TV of bloody beatings of demonstrators by the police and the horrific scenes of dogs being unleashed on black people and their children were commonplace. There’s no hint of any tension here. Even the cops look like they are having a swell time. The musicians wear suits, white shirts, and ties, as was their custom. They’d come to gigs in the seediest of clubs as if they were going to a royal wedding or a funeral. There are exceptions, of course: Dizzy Gillespie wears a fez in one photo, a dashiki in another, a tweed overcoat and tweed cap in still another. The idea, both among the older and younger generation of musicians, was to make oneself conspicuous, either by being the best-dressed person in the room, or by breaking all the conventions.”
  • Nearly a month has passed since Election Day, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has a message: keep talking about what you’ve been talking about. “Now is the time to resist the slightest extension in the boundaries of what is right and just. Now is the time to speak up and to wear as a badge of honor the opprobrium of bigots. Now is the time to confront the weak core at the heart of America’s addiction to optimism; it allows too little room for resilience, and too much for fragility. Hazy visions of ‘healing’ and ‘not becoming the hate we hate’ sound dangerously like appeasement. The responsibility to forge unity belongs not to the denigrated but to the denigrators. The premise for empathy has to be equal humanity; it is an injustice to demand that the maligned identify with those who question their humanity.”