Full-time jobs in the humanities have been cut severely in the U.S. and elsewhere, and students who enter college are no longer expected to read the works of great authors such as Sophocles, Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Thomas Mann as they once were. The shifting of priorities toward math and science, to the point where students are forsaking literature and history in droves at top colleges, has also led to a lowering of intellectual standards in the courses offered by humanities departments, as faculty hesitate to assign difficult texts because they might drive away students.
Earlier generations of thinkers and scholars would find our plight curious. It was self-evident to them that the study of literature and philosophy was necessary for the individual to develop his abilities and fulfill his potential. In the Chinese tradition, the scholar-official studied the classics to learn about the past so that he would be prepared for the crises that he would face in his own time. Similarly, for the ancient Greeks, Homer's poetry was their guide for undertaking feats of courage and daring that future generations would commemorate.
The European novel achieved an unmatched depth in the exploration of the individual psyche. The works of Leo Tolstoy and Marcel Proust provide us with startling insights into our desires and hopes, and illusions and self-absorption. Such knowledge about the human character is the key to living well, so that we may choose our mates and professions well and make a place for ourselves in the wider world.
People feel overwhelmed by a rapidly changing world in which no set of values can ensure one's success and happiness. Yet the idea that works of literature contain lessons for us that would enable us to lead more fulfilling lives retains a potent allure. It is not surprising to see the chaebol turning to the humanities to gain the benefits that past generations of poets and scholars have attributed to its study: the ability to think outside the box, the willingness to challenge worn-out pieties and reform obsolete practices, and, most of all, the capacity to innovate and create new ways of thinking. As a recent article in Korea Expose points out, South Korean firms are touting the humanities as a way to overcome the lack of innovation and creativity they regard as the greatest challenge to their future growth.
While many academics would criticize the newfound admiration of the corporate world for the humanities as an attempt to manipulate culture for selfish and materialistic purposes, businesspeople are not wrong in their intuition that the study of literature and philosophy offers benefits for commercial endeavors. The French novelist Stendhal once noted that making philosophical discoveries and succeeding in banking both require that one be "free of illusions" and be capable of "seeing clearly into that which exists."
Knowledge is power, especially the knowledge that teaches us to see things as they are and not as we would wish them to be. To see clearly as Stendhal describes is the basis for making good judgments about oneself and others, without which one cannot succeed in business or in any other endeavor.
But an art and culture worthy of the name are not things that can be produced on demand, nor is the serious reflection about them something that can be accomplished in a hurry. To create works that reveal genuine insight about one's people and one's era requires leisure ― time and space in which to think and create. And one of the fundamental conditions for producing the space that enables innovation to flourish is to promote a wide range of intellectual ventures, many of which may not bear fruit.
Innovation comes from the willingness to support a wide variety of intellectual and artistic projects ― it is not possible for a society to innovate by choosing in advance which of these ventures to support. But even more than innovation, the greatest benefit that the humanities can bring to contemporary society is to revive the idea of vocation, of spreading the spirit of dedicating oneself wholeheartedly to an endeavor without any thought of material reward.
Peter Yoonsuk Paik (email@example.com) is a researcher in literature and philosophy at Yonsei University.