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Scientific Objectivity and the Decline of the Humanities

Updated on January 13, 2016

In 1995, David Marc published Bonfire of the Humanities, subtitled “Television, Subliteracy, and Long-Term Memory Loss.” It is as damning today as it was twenty years ago (updated version, please?). Marc is and was a professional media critic and academic. His look at how the media has affected us, not just in terms of sociological scientific “effects research” (the only time I feel violent is towards any television is after I am forced to watch Jersey Shore in a restaurant—fear not, gentle reader), but by ignoring television as a humanistic and cultural medium. What I want to do is use Marc’s book as a jumping off point for some meditations on the state of the humanities.

Marc’s main complaint is against the privileging of certainty (read scientific) over issues of judgment (read humanities). Literacy has become devalued as more and more discentives are placed in front of the reader. This is particularly true in academia (ouch!) where students become more interested in the final product (their grade) without any willingness to put in effort to actually become educated (double ouch!!). Students flee from any teacher who does not offer “objective measures”—the three things a paper must include to get an “A” or multiple choice tests (bonus points for those teachers who “grade on a curve” or offer bonus points)—and requires interaction with course materials (a.k.a. reading). Worse of all are those teachers that actually punish bad writing and encourage thinking and evaluating—avoid the black robes!

David Marc


Literacy and how to swing it!

“Literacy is basically a practice,” Marc writes, “There is no substitute for personal daily organic involvement with reading and writing if you want to master the process. The less time you spend with it, the less skill you are bound to acquire or hold.” (29) Those of us in academia “get it.” The less focus on reading and writing, the worse the skills. The current focus on assessment-by-test and it’s corollary funding-by-assessment-by-test does not create an educated population who are literate or even value literacy. Forced to focus on the technical aspects of reading (“what does this paragraph say?”) there is no space or time for actual reading (“how does this paragraph relate to me/make me feel/what does it make me think?”) or encouragement for children to, gasp, enjoy reading! Worse than subliteracy, or even illiteracy, is bad literacy. This is where language is replaced by pictorial and guttural representations of words—lol, omg, u, k, etc.—and not corrected. The badly literate believe that this language leet-speak is an acceptable alternative for being able to spell and that grammar is married to gramps. How will these students find jobs with their college degrees? At least they will have fifteen minutes of fame during a report on the “failing education system” by Fox News.

High and Low Culture

Does the United States still have distinct high, midbrow and low cultures?

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"The Consciousness Industry"

By denying people the chance for literacy, we cut them off from the whole sweep of culture. The main transmitter of culture and dominant technology of our time, television, has failed them by becoming a consumerist tool. Television offers easy answers to questions: buy this! Culture is distributed by the handful (and we are losing fingers rapidly) of companies, corporation and shells that hold media assets. This leads to the real threat of societal totalitarianism. Marc borrows Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s idea of the consciousness industry. The dichotomy of high/low culture has disappeared, replaced the corporations who target population segments: “Just as the garment industry reaches both high and low, from exclusive boutiques to schlocky discount stores, so has the consciousness industry achieved a comprehensive industrial oligarchy over culture at large through the domination of memory distribution.” (54) News Corps owns both Fox News and National Geographic—nuff said. Any chance of struggle against this domination fades at the same rate that belief in metaphysical concerns decay:

Hans Magnus Enzensberger

"In a society where theocracy rules or maintains a large organized following, the consciousness industry is limited in power. States that officially subscribe to, or people who sincerely believe in sacred books or in the presence of supernatural forces are less susceptible to electronic media manipulation. Interestingly, television programs often pay lip service to the virtues of traditional religion. But the concerns of religion are of only marginal significance in TV content compared to the secular messages about consumption. What is the greater value, smelling good or cleansing the soul? Dressing in style or going to heaven? Fear of sexual rejection or fear of God?" (57-58)

With the rapid secularization of society (which is not necessarily a bad thing), nothing has stepped forward to replace the consumerist message of the media. The situation may have grown graver since Marc’s writing. Now it is not enough to view consumerist message, one is encouraged to participate in them. Post about your day on Facebook, have products that will address the heartbreak of psoriasis you admitted to. Post about your relationship with Jesus? There will probably be an ad for a Christian bookstore when you log back in.

The Power of Video

One place that the consciousness industry is devastating is in recording and recounting history. Video records the event and then replaces it. After all, video only records what happens in front--where could the bias come from? Videois never objective. Anyone who says that video is simply a record of reality has seen neither video nor reality. Reality, like video, takes place in a context and video, like reality, cannot be divorced from that reality. Kenneth Burke states that “a way of seeing is also a way of not seeing.” The context that we, the viewers, see the video from always defines the way that the reality of the video. And if you don’t believe me, then you have proved my point (I win either way!).

Twentieth Anniversary of Rodney King

Rodney King

Perhaps an example: Rodney King was videotaped being beaten by police officers. Case over, correct? We have seen the objective truth of the video. But, as Marc relates

Two TV critics, one the prosecutor, the other the defense attorney, endeavored to interpret a videotape, which served in this case as what the French and their fans like to call “zee tehhxt.” The prosecutor said, “Well, you’ve seen the tape so let me tell you what it really meant: these cops mercilessly beat this man beyond all necessity and for no good reason.” Undaunted, the defense attorney responded, “O.K., you’ve seen the tape so let me tell you what it really meant: these cops did their duty in subduing and arresting this dangerous criminal.” Instead of twelve hundred Nielsen families, the sample group here consisted of a traditional if somewhat unscientific twelve jurors. (72)

How does one handle a hot decision of a cool medium? Marc imagines George Halliday, who captured the scene on video, capturing what happened on canvas in acrylics. Marc states that painting is seen as “too subjective” because it involves “special talents on the part of the imagemaker” and would not be used as evidence (73)—it involves too much critical interpretation. The camera (now available on any cellphone which fits in your pocket), which is a “point in the general direction of what’s happening and hit the button” technology, has no “point-of-view” (Marshall McLuhan's perfect cool technology). We don’t interrogate the camera about what it felt while shooting—sometimes the cinematic auteur isn’t invited to talk to the jury.

I Love Lucy


I Give Up!

Our search for objectivity leads to some strange choices. But, we need to break from the idea that history, or anything, is objective and straightforward. The humanities, where we should be teaching ambiguity, are failing our students by not making them at ease with, or at least able to tolerate, that mushiness. By denying our students literacy, we deny them the ability to interrogate the past, at least the past beyond I Love Lucy. The problems we face in doing this are systemic. Tearing down and rebuilding is not an option and neither is slow repair of an academic system that, increasingly, favors those who come out with “skills” and “knowledges” rather than logics of analysis.


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      Howard Schneider 3 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Excellent Hub, Jeffshires. We need much more critical thinking being taught in our schools. Questioning and analyzing everything should be the goal of students and a skill that teachers should instill. History should be explained as to why events occurred and much less of the dry dates and places. Literature should be encouraged to be read with an interpretative slant.

    • jeffshires profile image

      Jeff Shires 3 years ago from Lake Station, IN

      Thanks for the feedback. I agree. I tell my students that I want them to learn ways of looking at the world as opposed to memorizing facts. If you can't break down and understand what's going on around you, all the skills in the world won't save you for long.

    • raymondphilippe profile image

      Raymond Philippe 3 years ago from The Netherlands

      Jeff. I think you hit the nail on its head. "We need to break from the idea that history, or anything, is objective and straightforward.". It is fuzzy at best. And our interpretation of it keeps changing. "Learned skills" and "knowledges"are overrated if they are not connected to the ability to analyze and use logic in dealing with reality.