Education, History

Defending Humanities Scholarship from its Defenders

University of Toronto academic and literary scholar Ira Wells recently wrote a defence of humanist academics for The Walrus magazine. But Wells’s characterization of humanist scholarship, and its purpose, is itself problematic. Wells claims that the majority of humanities courses are committed to fostering critical thinking. But, as Uri Harris has already pointed out elsewhere at Quillette, Wells’s definition of critical thinking, “to read against the grain of accepted wisdom and to question the inherited power hierarchies that structure human relations,” is in fact applied critical theory, aka Frankfurt School-style leftist politics.

To be critical with the tools of critical theory means analyzing an institution, an event, a work of art, in order to reveal the unequal allocation of power. Within this mode of inquiry, the unequal ‘power dynamics,’ especially within ‘traditional hierarchies,’ are not facts needing explication but roadblocks to social justice, or as Herbert Marcuse put it, “a world without fear and misery.” This form of criticism is primarily about finding oppressors and their victims, not weighing evidence or assessing contending explanations. It is an answer looking for a question, the opposite of an open and free search for true knowledge about human beings in the world through time.

What the humanities are, and what humanist scholars do, I think, is something different. The humanities can and do add to the stock of empirically falsifiable human knowledge. For example, my current research on naval healthcare in Britain between 1650 and 1750 shows that women were far more important for the delivery of care than previously known, and that perceptions within the Royal Navy of women’s work as nurses for sick and injured sailors propelled the modernization of its healthcare administration. Is this a story about power? Unquestionably. Is understanding the ‘power dynamic’ the only thing worth knowing about the development of naval healthcare in Britain? Of course not. Naval officers and administrators believed that they had a duty to provide sailors the best care possible, and most of the time they acted on that conviction, often at great cost. The ‘care dynamic’ was as real historically to the dead humans whom I study as was the power dynamic.

Wells is also right to claim that humanities scholars assess received wisdom critically. But the critique of our, for lack of a better word, civilization, is just one possible outcome of a long period of learning about and from our elders past, flawed (because they were human) as they were. And before humanists can instruct students how they might, as Wells suggests, “read against the grain of accepted wisdom,” students have to learn to appreciate that wisdom on its own terms. You should come to know something deeply before you can criticize it rightly; think of Marx and all those years he spent working in the British Library before he wrote Das Kapital. What is the point of, for example, coaching students to criticize the inequitable distribution of power in the administration and practice of British naval healthcare in the 18th century if they have no idea about the material and social realities of existence during that era? To comment thoughtfully, students would need to go further than gender relations, but understand the somewhat bizarre strategic goals of the British governing classes from roughly 1688 to 1815 which largely arose as consequences of the religious reformations of the 16th century.

Humanities scholars possess a wealth of knowledge about the human experience, as lived and as represented, that they should eagerly share with undergraduate students prior to critiquing it. We are teachers, that is to say, we have authority within the hierarchy known as the university because we have acquired a degree of competence over large bodies of knowledge. We can claim to be scholars because we do research, which is meant to add to that knowledge, grounded in mental labor in the world: in archives, in libraries, in museums, in communities, digital humanities labs, at desks, and so on. For our students, our peers, and the public whose funding makes our enviable working conditions (tenure!) possible, we are, or at least ought to be, servants of the truth. As another literary scholar, Stanley Fish once wrote, if humanities academics also want to save the world by advocating for social justice, they should do it on their own time.

If Wells is right, and humanities professors are paid six-figure salaries to point out to students that traditional hierarchies are wicked and that people with power were and are bad (oppressors) and those without it were and are righteous (victims), we don’t need to go to war with provocative critics of our disciplines. We’ve already cleared away the barricades and blown out our own brains.


Matthew Neufeld is an associate professor of history at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada. His research aims to help us understand and explain some of the important cultural and social changes that stemmed from the experience of warfare and state formation in post-Reformation Britain and Europe.


  1. You seem to be hijacking the term “humanists”. I’ve never heard that word used to refer to humanities scholars. Perhaps it is in your enclave, but in the wider world it means something else.

    • It is in fact quite common to refer to scholars of the humanities as humanists, just as those who profess science are called scientists; indeed, that is the original usage of the word, in the sense of the Renaissance humanists, scholars of humane (classical) literature.

      It was only more recently (late nineteenth/early twentieth century, say) that “humanism” came to be used to refer to a general sort of irreligious, left-oriented worldview, often based around an abstract conception of “human rights” (i.e. “secular humanism”).

      Though humanist is often used these days in the latter sense, it’s still used in the former. I find useful Irving Babbitt’s distinction, which calls the former humanism but labels the latter “humanitarianism.”

      • Nicholas says

        Thank you, this is a much better explanation than I was about to give.

      • The etymology is interesting (and not so straightforward). But I think our different perspectives might hinge on the definition of “quite common”. I’ve looked in a number of online dictionaries, both US and UK, and only found one that includes a meaning equivalent to “humanities scholar” (The American Heritage Dictionary – third meaning, sub-division b). Interestingly, my preferred, bookshelf dictionary, Chambers (published in 1994 – yikes) lists the humanities usage first. More interestingly, the Google Ngram of the usage of the three terms Humanist, Humanism, and Humanities, converges on near identical prevalence at the latest date (2000). The fact that “humanism” and “humanist” occur with an equal frequency, and at the same frequency as “humanities”, suggests that the term “humanist” is infrequently used with the term “humanities”. As per my original post, I suggest that anyone finding it common to term humanities scholars as humanists might be in a particular enclave.

        The comparison with scientist and science is not so illuminating. There’s no conflict there. By calling someone who practises science a scientist loses nothing. Calling a humanities scholar a humanist impoverishes the language. “Humanist” and “humanities scholar” are distinct, apart from perhaps when used as shorthand used in certain enclaves (as reflected in the relative absence from dictionaries, which, after all, reflect usage). A more apt generalisation might be from -ism to -ist (or vice versa) e.g. socialism to socialist, antagonism to antagonist, theism to theist etc. In this sense a scientist would be someone who earns the pejorative label “scientism”. But this kind of word game demonstrates the futility of generalising language rules, and demonstrates the primacy of definition by usage. In this case we lose a useful word when we encourage the use of the undifferentiated use of humanist to mean humanities scholar, akin to using “beg the question” to mean raise the question. Again, apart from perhaps in certain enclaves, the term humanist is clearly attributed to humanism (not begging the question – true, humanism can mean study of the humanities, but to the similar small extent already discussed, and would impoverish the language if that got out too).

        But you were right to prompt for me to better consider my post.

  2. Even the article you linked to, which you summarise as “a defence of humanist academics” uses the proper term “humanities” throughout.

  3. 1. please eschew the word “problematic” – it now belongs wholly to the dark side, and conveys no meaning beyond “I disagree but haven’t the wit nor the energy to say why”

    2. The Wells piece isn’t a defence of anything, it’s just a rather feeble attempt to abuse Jordan Peterson with the tired old postmodernist refrain “you’re too ignorant to understand our obscurantist circumlocution.”

    3. “To be critical with the tools of critical theory means analyzing an institution, an event, a work of art, in order to reveal the unequal allocation of power.”

    No, that’s just the camouflage. No actual analysis is required – the villains are selected in advance.

    We can see this easily by conducting an real analysis of power imbalances in a routine event – man meets woman. Assuming the man is physically powerful and the woman is good looking, there are two imbalances of power here, pointing in opposite directions. The facts of biological life are that, so long as things are kept voluntary, the woman always has the power to choose. (The man has no bargaining power in this game, because to the nearest decimal place both players know that he only has a “Yes” button – he dpesn’t possess a “No” button.)

    But the man has the physical power (guns excluded) and so he can flip to a new game where things aren’t kept voluntary, and where the balance of power favours him. But his game doesn’t automatically trump hers, because there are huge costs and risks to him in flipping the game from consent to physical power. So a real analysis of the power dynamic even in this banal situation requires a deep dive into the details – are we in a rare situation where the man can actually use his power and get away with it (assuming the man is not bound by moral qualms ?) Or does he have some additional leverage from a different game (maybe he’s her boss?) Or are we left with the default where the woman has the power and he has to convince her that he’s worthy ?

    Even if you want to pan out and look at groups like {men} and {women} rather than the two individuals, an honest assessment would tell you that it simply isn’t true that {men} collectively have power over {women.} They have physical power over women (guns excepted) but there are other games with quite different power structures.

    So let’s not pretend that “critical theory” actually involves any analysis. The goodies and the baddies are selected ab initio, according to who the critical thinker wants to kick. This is why we can’t predict in advance who the critical thinker will decide is oppressed when we have gays v Muslims or white women v black men. The selection is not the result of analysis, it is arbitrary.

    • “according to who the critical thinker wants to kick. This is why we can’t predict in advance who the critical thinker will decide is oppressed when we have gays v Muslims or white women v black men”

      Sorry that was shamefully sloppy. It should read :

      “according to who the critical THEORIST wants to kick. This is why we can’t predict in advance who the critical THEORIST will decide is oppressed when we have gays v Muslims or white women v black men”

  4. Raymond Jurie says

    “obscurantist circumlocution,” I like that.

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