“The Art of Living Well”: Comments on Gregg Lambert’s Lecture

[This post was written by Prof. George McClure of the Department of History, University of Alabama.]

Kudos to the Religious Studies Department for launching this timely and important lecture series! Some thoughts on the first lecture follow. To my mind, Lambert’s talk demonstrated or exemplified the crisis in the Humanities, rather than analyzing it. He spoke of human capital, rather than human meaning; economic value, rather than moral values; commodification of self, rather than communion with ideas . Although promising to define various terms, he never defined the Humanities, in terms either of their origin or purpose—other than to suggest that the practical usefulness of a Humanities education is to burnish one’s “brand” for economic value in a contemporary culture awash with self-promotion.

To valorize the Humanities only in this way is to capitulate to the view that a university education has purpose only for professional reasons. While proponents of this consumerist view argue that they are the only ones really acknowledging the economic crisis, they may be adding to it, as the Humanities will never successfully compete with the sciences and professional disciplines for practical usefulness. Ironically, if one wanted to affirm the Humanities’ (and universities’) economic viability, it would be by showing that they possess something found nowhere else in the culture: a reading and interpretation of texts, ideas, and human experience in rigorous exchange with scholarly experts.

We shouldn’t try to compete with television, emulate the cult of celebrity (thus Lady Gaga on the slide), and monetize the intangible. And, yes, there is an intrinsic value in the humanities: where else can you go to explore the “art of living well and happily,” proper engagement with the larger social and natural world, and a template for self-discovery. This is the “commodity” we should be “selling”; rather, the opportunity we should be offering in the Humanities. If you want simply to polish your image or commodify your labor, go to a vocational school or get a PR agent, but please don’t come to the Humanities: you would be wasting your time and mine.