U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Intersections of Value: A Defense of the Liberal Arts and Humanities

Over the past few weeks I’ve been engaged in a number of academic conversations that have caused me to think again about defenses of the humanities and liberal arts. Those conversations have revolved around the merits of a particular genre that’s emerged over the past few years: the economic defense. How much does that line of defense help or hurt the liberal arts? What of our dearest and deepest ideals, so eloquently expressed at the here by LD Burnett? The despair many of us feel is palpable. And to resort to the language of business and neoliberalism offends the core beliefs of many. Yet that new genre of defense cannot be ignored. Why? Because that line of thinking matters, to the general public, in relation to another long-running trend: the corporatization of the university. As B.D. McClay put it in a recent reflection on the devaluation of the liberal arts and humanities in higher edu, it’s less about the culture wars and more about two different cultures on campus (i.e. business v the liberal arts).

In a long comment to Burnett’s post I relayed that I’ve “warmed” to economic arguments in the defense of the humanities. To explain my warmth I relayed the substance of a recent essay by Daniel Kleinman.[1] After my summary of his piece I concluded as follows: “While I don’t like this line of defense/offense, I am persuaded by Kleinman of its necessity in the broader front of war that hasn’t gone well for historians, philosophers, and other humanities scholars. Let’s not allow our idealism to cloud our own practical thinking, even while those ideals propel us to smarter and broader defenses of the life of the mind.”

While I emphasized practicality in that passage, I cannot reiterate enough that the deepest arguments, of greatest worth, in defense of the humanities are related to the human spirit. As I’ve stewed over this issue, I think the solution to my distress over this practical-idealist dichotomy was right before me. The resolution of my intellectual stress came from a two-syllable word lurking around the edges of my conversation with Burnett and others. That word, that key term, is value.


The Latin roots for the term ‘value’ are valuta, valutus, and valere. These variations designate “to be of worth, be strong.” In Middle English ‘value’ is used to designate things of worth or high quality.[2]

Worth. Strong. High Quality.

These terms have descended to us through history. Via the Oxford English Dictionary (3rd edition, Sept. 2011), below is an extensive sampling of iterations of the definitions of ‘value’ as a noun.[3] Despite the length of the list and its aesthetic clunkiness, please bear with me. Review these entries carefully, giving special attention to the bolded passages, and especially those entries listed in Part II.

I. “Worth or quality as measured by a standard of equivalence.” … That last clause, of course, brings us down the road of capitalism. The entirety of entries 1-5 below riff on those qualities of measure and equivalence.

– 1. “The material or monetary worth of something; the amount at which something may be estimated in terms of a medium of exchange, as money or goods, or some other similar standard.”
– 2. Or, as *the value*: “The equivalent monetary worth of a specified sum or amount.” Or: “The extent or amount of a specified non-monetary numerical quantity.”
– 3. “Originally: a standard of estimation or exchange; an amount or sum reckoned in terms of this.” And this: “That amount of a commodity, medium of exchange, etc., which is considered to be an equivalent for something else; a fair or satisfactory equivalent or return. Now chiefly in value for money.” …
– 4. “Math. A numerical measure of a physical quantity; …”
– 5.c. “Art. Due or proper effect or emphasis; relative tone of colour in each distinct section of a picture; a particular tone or emphasis.” …
– 5.f. “Chiefly Linguistics and Semiotics. The place or function of a sign within a system of signs from which it derives its meaning. Now also more generally: meaning.”

II. “Worth based on esteem; quality viewed in terms of importance, usefulness, desirability, etc.”

– 6.a. “The relative worth, usefulness, or importance of a thing or (occas.) a person; the estimation in which a thing is held according to its real or supposed desirability or utility. Later also (Philos. and Social Sciences): such worth or estimation regarded in relation to an individual or group.”
– 6.b. “Estimation or opinion of or liking for a person or thing; (formerly also) an instance of this.”
– 6.c. “With distinguishing word: the quality of a thing considered in respect of its ability to serve a specified purpose or cause a particular effect.”
– 6.d. “orig. U.S. In pl. (freq. collectively). The principles or moral standards held by a person or social group; the generally accepted or personally held judgement of what is valuable and important in life.

Finally, as one continues down the entirety of the OED entry, one encounters “Compounds.” Here are few entries from under the “objective” category that matter to this discussion:

– “(a) With present participles and verbal nouns, as value-creating, value-enhancing, value-giving, value-making, etc.”
– “(b) With agent nouns, as value-giver, value maximizer, value-seeker, etc.”


Here in this one definition with many parts—in this long history of term ‘value’ in the English language—is embedded the tensions we feel today in defending the worth, meaning, and merits of the liberal arts and humanities. We cannot explain our evaluations without this tension being embedded in our language.

That tension, however, provides an opportunity to re-appropriate certain terms and emphases. It also supplies an opportunity for integration. By invoking the language of value in how we articulate the worth and power of the liberal arts and humanities, we practitioners give ourselves a chance to think in ways that intersect with our university brethren in economics, business, marketing, etc.

To defend the liberal arts and humanities, we must emphasize that it is only those areas of study that recognize, create, preserve, assess, and revise the ways we make meaning, worth, and significance. Beyond objects of mere utility for survival, it is in the liberal arts and humanities that the value of all other commodities are assessed and recognized.

In as much as “values” in the American sense are accepted or judged, they are determined in a web of meaning created, preserved, and interpreted by those who think about the humanities and liberal arts. It is a historical mind, or historical thinking, that determines the preservation and recognition of old values, and helps translate them for the present.

If corporations and businesses are primarily concerned with the exchange of value, and measuring commodities for the purpose of exchange, it is the humanists who help evaluate the values being exchanged. Businesses, smart ones that is, already recognize the value of humanistic and liberal arts thinking in what they do. They already hire liberal arts majors in various positions. Those businesses know creativity and acts of creation precede exchange and measurement.

Beyond creativity, humanists have the ability to invest certain existing commodities with value. The fields of sales and marketing know this. Do businesses know that humanists could, or should, be key team members in those endeavors? A liberal arts education inculcates the ability to discern value and explain it. That education provides the powers of persuasion needed to communicate areas of value to the uninformed, to the value-seekers.

An education the humanities provides the breadth of vision that also matters in leadership positions. The liberal arts provide one with a sense of the complexity, context, and contingency that are inherent in human relations. A good leader will think in those terms while managing a team. Those judgments negotiate the meaning of projects for a team, and add value to the institution.

To paraphrase historian Anthony Kaye, recently profiled in The Chronicle of Higher Education, humanists and business leaders who advocate for the humanities must communicate together those “everyday ‘humanities moments'” to general audiences. Those everyday moments involve numerous times where value is recognized, created, preserved, assessed, and revised in ways that make meaning and worth. Those moments involve judgments of quality.


One of my particular concerns in these debates about defending the liberal arts and humanities, and hence the appearance of this essay at this blog, is the history profession. The perceived value of that subject seems to have declined over the past 30-40 years.

In a recent op-ed published by the Los Angeles Times, James Grossman, Executive Director of the American Historical Association, outlined some disturbing recent trends with regard to the loss of history majors. And he noted this decline is not limited to history, but extends to all humanities majors. In his words, “the core humanities disciplines constituted only 6.1% of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2014, the lowest proportion since systematic data collection on college majors began in 1948.” And Grossman is right when he argues that “this is unfortunate — not just for those colleges, but for our economy and polity. “[4]

After noting some of the political objections, also outlined in the Kleinman article I mentioned above, Grossman reminds us that history majors do well in the medium and long term in the professional world, whether business or otherwise. And he reemphasizes that liberal arts and humanities majors have a flexibility of mind that allows for adaptation in changed economic landscapes.

Grossman then shifts to the merits of “critical thinking,” which he, as a historian, occasionally conflates with historical thinking. I have no problem with that. Here are the key passages:

The utility of disciplines that prepare critical thinkers escapes personnel offices, pundits and politicians (some of whom perhaps would prefer that colleges graduate more followers and fewer leaders). …

All liberal arts degrees demand that kind of learning, as well as the oft-invoked virtues of critical thinking and clear communication skills. History students, in particular, sift through substantial amounts of information, organize it, and make sense of it. In the process they learn how to infer what drives and motivates human behavior from elections to social movements to board rooms. …

In an election season we are reminded regularly that success often goes to whoever can articulate the most compelling narrative. History majors learn to do that.

Everything has a history. To think historically is to recognize that all problems, all situations, all institutions exist in contexts that must be understood before informed decisions can be made. No entity — corporate, government, nonprofit — can afford not to have a historian at the table. We need more history majors, not fewer.

I cannot disagree with Grossman’s assessment. I can only add to it.

Critical thinking and historical thinking both help in the recognition, creation, assessment, preservation, and revision of value in the world, both in terms of objects and ideas. That understanding of value will help any organization be more efficient. That kind of thinking adds medium and long-term value to any endeavor—so long as leadership is willing to look beyond the immediate term. But people trained in the liberal arts can also see immediate and present value. A good critical thinker is also an agile thinker.

Humanistic thinkers and liberal arts majors are value-givers, value maximizers, and value-seekers. They create, enhance, give, and make value.

These intersections of value, I think, might help bridge the gap between our humanistic ideals and our corporate needs. On the latter I mean, of course, any organized attempt to understand and work with things of value. The language of value gives us a chance, as well as those who approach institutional endeavors with a business mindset, to converse. It might serve as an in-common area of discourse, a lingua franca of intellectual virtues.

With these possiblities in mind, let’s at least make an effort to bridge this long-running tension, embedded in our language, about what is most meaningful and of the highest worth. It be our only hope of changing the current trajectory of humanistic programs of study. – TL


[1] Daniel Lee Kleinman, “Sticking Up for Liberal Arts and Humanities Education: Governance, Leadership, and Fiscal Crisis,” in Gordon Hutner, Feisal G. Mohamed, eds, A New Deal for the Humanities: Liberal Arts and the Future of Public Higher Education (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015), 86-100.

[2] ‘Value’, From the Merriam-Webster online dictionary. FYI: The macron over the first ‘e’ in valere won’t translate here in WordPress.

[3] “value, n.”. OED Online. June 2016. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com.turing.library.northwestern.edu/view/Entry/221253?isAdvanced=false&result=1&rskey=WYOSiy& (accessed June 09, 2016).

[4] James Grossman, “History Isn’t a ‘Useless’ Major. It Teaches Critical Thinking, Something America Needs Plenty More of,” Los Angeles Times, May 30, 2016. http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-grossman-history-major-in-decline-20160525-snap-story.html.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for this really great post, Tim.

    Here basically is my main conceptual problem, for my own project, in a nutshell: explaining how these two broad notions of value that you’ve rightly pointed out as being always in tension have reciprocally informed (or de-formed, or re-formed) each other. Conflicts about “the canon” were not simply about culture wars/identity politics or even loss of tradition for its own sake, but (I am trying to argue) reflective of a profound and widespread sense of unease about reconfigurations of the semiotics of value bound up (literally) in the changing significance of books (particular books, and books in the aggregate) — books as both ideas and objects.

    As you are arguing above (at least as I understand you), the key to this endeavor is focusing on value as a semiotic function / semiotic problem. All arguments about value/values — ethical values, market values, the value of learning, the value of reading this book versus that book or any book at all, etc, etc. — are about finding/building a system of signs as a common denominator to compare different orders of things. As “native semioticians,” humanists should have a leg up on developing/articulating these systems.

    I’m not sure whether this will be comforting or alarming for you, but the instinct to turn towards semiotics – towards language – as the common denominator for reconciling different notions of value was, I have argued/am arguing, one of the main strategies behind the establishment of that “Western Culture” course in the first place. That’s where the humanists at Stanford took their stand, and what they stood upon, quite explicitly – students would gain facility in several of the various “languages” (aesthetic forms, cultural expressions) through which humans have communicated meaning/value. This would equip students to be value-makers and value-arbiters – much as you have argued above.

    Of course computer scientists / software engineers — also ubiquitous at Stanford — are native semioticians too. And thereby hangs a tale in which we are all entangled.

    More later…

    • Thanks for laboring through my piece, LD. I confess to being less well-read in the area of semiotics than perhaps I ought to be, given my recommendation above. But yes, ‘value’ is the sign, keyword, and signal for all about the merits of humanistic and liberal arts learning. Humanists, properly trained, are the best at discerning what ‘value’ inheres in anything that concerns human beings. And even if that value/s is purported to come from on high, human eyes must read, discern, apply, and preserve what they’ve seen, perceived, and received from on high.

      In sum, I think this term ‘value’ is capacious enough to integrate all human learning and work, while properly giving merits to the study of the humanities and liberal arts. – TL

  2. as a graduate of what i am told is one of the country’s leading liberal arts colleges, here’s my short take on the matter: a liberal arts education is of value to you; technical training is of value to someone else.

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