I was born in 1998. This was a decade that witnessed the initial public offering of Amazon, the first smartphone, and a sharp increase in the share of North American and European populations using the internet. At the same time, this was still the first decade of the post-Cold War era: globalisation hit full steam—a process that has done so much to define contemporary life, turning first-world luxuries into universal possibilities. This prompted a forward-looking, unassailably optimistic new attitude. The potential of technology, it was thought, would unite every corner of the globe through its unlimited reach and manifold blessings.
This was the zeitgeist in which tech CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and Sundar Pichai came of age. Of course, this brave new world went through one or two wobbles. The dot-com boom springs to mind. But relentless optimism requires a short memory. It is no wonder that the people living through such rapid, ground-breaking changes in humanity’s technological proficiency have come to appreciate, above all else, the practical uses of information. One consequence has been a stubborn prejudice against any knowledge that is deemed irrelevant to everyday life.
Indeed, it is not difficult to persuade the young that they will profit from studying science, technology, mathematics, or engineering (STEM). Aside from pure mathematics (loved by mathematicians for the same aesthetic reason that the rest of us adore music), these hard sciences promise their students not only enlightened souls, but greater mastery over the world. “Knowledge is power,” declared Francis Bacon. The power to cure diseases, to build skyscrapers, to predict volatility in the world financial system—these are just some of the applied uses to which STEM-based knowledge can be put. They all give strength to the Baconian faith that a scientific culture, properly nurtured, can secure “the relief of man’s estate.”
One of the difficulties is that this vibrant culture of scientific discovery is not available to everyone. Unlike football or the Queen’s Jubilee, modern science is by its very nature profoundly elitist. To dimwits like me, the secrets of quantum theory or the origin of the universe, even if handed down to us fully on tablets of stone, might as well be written in Korean. Drawing on St. Augustine, St. Anselm of Canterbury encapsulated the purpose of theology in three simple words: fides quaerens intellectum—that is, “faith seeking understanding.” In the age of Christendom, religion was an inextricable part of the common culture. Faith was a near-universal feeling. But within prestigious medieval universities, Christian faith was coupled with a desire among intellectuals like St. Thomas Aquinas to know God. The situation today is unchanged, except for the fact that faith in God has been supplanted by a belief in the redemptive power of science. As such, at the Western seats of higher learning, old-school theology has been overtaken by empirical study of the physical world. As our best and brightest work daily to expand the frontiers of scientific knowledge, the rest of us look on with a certain level of trust in the process.
But really, bafflement is the overriding emotion—the same confusion that would have struck a 13th century washerwoman, however devout she might have been, if invited to wade through Summa Theologiae. Intellectual firepower is unevenly distributed throughout any human population. This is an issue which every society, including our own, has had to confront. But uniquely among civilizations, the modern West must also contend with the way that an obsession with relevance—the sort that drives the applied sciences—has trickled down to other areas of cultural life where it does not properly belong. It has come to characterise the outlooks of people, including adolescent students, who are not scientists. Attending school in the 21st century, it was fairly common for my classmates to quiz teachers, particularly if they specialised in humanities, about the real-world utility of their chosen subject: “What is the point in our learning about Shakespeare, Hinduism, or the Second World War if it doesn’t actually impact daily life? Wouldn’t it make more sense teaching us how to write a CV or perform well in a job interview?”
By this newly popularised criteria, the test of valuable knowledge is no longer whether it expands our consciousness. On the contrary, the pursuit is only considered worthwhile if it keeps us locked within the mundane reality that we already inhabit. Moreover, despite emerging from an overly scientific attitude to learning, the cult of relevance soon grows to contaminate science itself. Indeed, the question can equally be asked of scientists who specialise in seemingly useless branches of physics, chemistry, or biology. “Why should we waste our time with dark matter, hydrocarbons, and the anatomy of molluscs,” some may wonder, “when the job market is so competitive and rewards none of these odd, esoteric interests?”
As a challenge to certain aspects of modern science, this objection is in fact quite easy to answer. After all, it is impossible to assess the true relevance of scientific discoveries—if relevance is our sole concern—in advance of their being made. Even once they have been made, their applications will not always be immediately obvious. The atom was split in the 1930s, but it took another decade for the thermonuclear potential—indeed, the practical relevance—of that breakthrough to be realised by the Manhattan Project. Putting moral considerations aside, scientific knowledge has a claim to be regarded as an end-in-itself, because there is no visible limit to the possible future ends (as yet unimagined and even potentially fatal, as in the case of nuclear bombs) that a greater understanding of the natural world might serve to fulfil.
Where does this leave the humanities? If anything, their value is much greater than the incredible fact of modern science. After all, while the scientific method can help us to manufacture a nuclear weapon, it has nothing to say about whether or not, and under what conditions, we might be justified in using one. The problem is that religion, history, and philosophy are not always as self-evidently useful as they would be, for example, in this discussion about nuclear war. Such subjects suffer the disadvantage of having to prove themselves before an impatient modern world that sees obvious relevance in the present moment as the measure of all things.
Growing up in such an environment, my distinctly impractical love of literature, history, thought, and intellectual life in general was difficult to explain, and even remains so. I was fortunate to live in a house filled with books and to have parents who felt the same deep attraction to the offerings of culture. It did not matter that my own passion was founded on emotion as opposed to reason. The fact was that, since my parents shared it, I never had to justify myself within the home. At school, however, the tyranny of relevance was more dominant—at least among my fellow students who, as I say, would often flummox teachers with loaded questions about the practical utility of a curriculum that was not sufficiently tailored to the parochial concerns of adolescence. The teachers would struggle, as I did, to explain why engaging with Chaucer or ancient Rome were ends-in-themselves, usually plumping for some uninspiring remark about how these subjects serve as means to an end. “They will help you get the grades you need to go to university and the transferable skills required to get a decent job” was the standard response. The more intelligent, authoritative teachers would just tell us to “shut up and turn to page seven.” Still, it left the question unanswered.
This left me insecure. It was only once I had reached my 20s that I began to realise, with growing confidence, that there was something fundamentally wrong with the utilitarian underpinning of the question. True, there are some genuine practical benefits to intellectual life, even if these applications are not always immediately self-evident. “The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward,” argued Winston Churchill, trying to offer a pragmatic justification for the study of history. But this is not the crowning strength of the humanities. Their chief virtue is that they raise the human spirit. They lift us beyond the utilitarian world of assorted facts to a transcendental realm in which questions of value, meaning, and purpose reign supreme.
Even if there are unknowable limits to the application of knowledge, there is no end to the fascination, joy, and even sheer terror that we can experience by engaging with the varied cultural, moral, and imaginative life of human beings down the ages. “The proper study of mankind is man,” proclaimed Alexander Pope, in a testament to the high purpose of the humanities. They offer us the chance to live in accordance with our nature as curious, purposeful creatures, equipped with reason and language. Unlike the lower animals, as self-conscious, imaginative beings we can transcend the boundaries of our own lives, times, and environments. Intellectual adventure is not available to bees, who simply do as they do in obedience to their limited nature. The hive may be a place of cohesion, but it contains no libraries, paintings, or statues to heroic bees of the past. Human life without the humanities would be much the same: cut off from our roots, deprived of meditation, and locked in an eternal now. The cult of relevance makes prisoners of us all.
The universe of the humanities provides a way out from this mental captivity. In principle, these give us the freedom to avail ourselves of an unlimited fund of human wisdom. By conversing with the dead, we can live vicariously through their thoughts, experiences, and imaginative flights of fancy. Far from being arid, antique, or fossilised, the past is “forever young,” as the historian Jonathan Clark likes to remind us, “its youth preserved by fresh inquiry.” There is nothing pointless or nostalgic about immersing oneself in the poetry of Shakespeare, the investigations of Aristotle, or the deaths of ancient civilizations. The genuinely limited person is the one who acts like everything worth knowing began with the launch of the internet.
Unlike conservatives, the Left has skilfully adapted to our relevance-obsessed age. Critical theorists, for example, say that their research into the systems of Western civilization is not merely relevant, but an ethical imperative. What could be more urgent than the need to interrogate the oppressive structures of society, delegitimize their truth claims, and liberate their victims? By this openly radical understanding of education, the humanities join the applied sciences in worshipping the cult of relevance. “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Part of his Theses on Feuerbach, this notorious declaration was made by Karl Marx, who without any question believed, as the neo-Marxists do of themselves, that his social theories were not just philosophically sound, but practically useful. As it happens, Marx’s statement was also plastered on the walls of the main corridor at my school. Given the modern tyranny of relevance, it is not surprising that so many of my peers, even when they do admire the humanities, gravitate towards the most practical, revolutionary, and supposedly ‘scientific’ spin that Marx put on just about everything, from history and economics to religion and philosophy.
Conservative efforts to get young people interested in, say, the Peloponnesian War, the Agricultural Revolution, Kant’s three Critiques, or religious conflict in the 16th and 17th centuries largely fall on deaf ears. People who regard these objects of study as ends-in-themselves, as imperishable gifts to the human spirit that ennoble life on earth, are an increasingly rare breed. As my Dad once told me, “we need Gustave Flaubert for the same reason that we all need to see a sunset.” If this sort of answer is unsatisfying to the modern world, then it is the narrow definition of value built into the questions we ask that needs revising.
Utilitarianism reduces intellectual life to an obsession with technical know-how. Yet paradoxically, the humanities are in fact more useful, for they allow us to expand our understanding of what should matter. The tyranny of relevance makes us slaves to a pre-arranged set of ends. Literature, philosophy, and history—in these we find the forces of liberation, because they join us to a deeper, much more expansive realm of transcendence. Accordingly, we feel a sense of belonging that harmonises with our nature. Far from preoccupying ourselves with means, we become members of a larger conversation about what ends should be pursued in the first place. By concerning ourselves with utility alone, we lose sight of purpose. Once we re-focus our attention on purpose, questions of utility answer themselves.
Saint John Henry Newman once wrote that “Christianity raises men from earth, for it comes from heaven; but secular morality creeps, struts, or frets upon the earth’s level, without wings to rise.” The same is true of the modern cult of relevance, which equally clips our wings. It deprives us of our power to soar above the tedious index of empirical facts that constitutes physical reality. We have an unsheddable yearning for contact with the transcendent. To neglect it in favour of bondage to the drab materialism of life on earth, when the offer of transcending it costs nothing at all, is not to live as a human being. Even the poets might struggle to understand why a culture rich beyond its wildest imaginings would choose to indulge this collective madness.