During a recession, everyone reaches for their green eyeshade. Unless it’s cheap, we don’t buy it. If it’s not certain to pay off, we don’t invest. Hoping to be more practical, we risk becoming like Oscar Wilde’s cynic who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
There’s nothing wrong with trying to measure the value of the humanities in dollars and cents. But remember that the value of dollars and cents can only be measured in human terms. And it is from such human considerations—moral, historical, and political considerations—that great deeds usually spring.
It was, for instance, not the idea of monetary gain at all that convinced the gentleman Thomas Graham, at the age of forty-three, to become a soldier, but the realization that the French Revolution, for all its noble ideals, contained a barbarism that had to be defeated. At the Battle of Cádiz, Graham helped undermine Napoleon’s Iberian campaign, which Napoleon himself would call his “Spanish ulcer” and blame for his undoing.
Nor was it financial prudence that set J. P. Morgan on course to become one of America’s greatest art collectors. Such passion and taste and expense as has filled the Morgan Library & Museum with incredible art and priceless manuscripts defies simple cost-benefit analysis. Yet such wealth—spread out like a banquet, awaiting hungry minds— leaves us all enriched.
Morgan gave away the things he wanted, as did Dolley Madison. By bestowing kindness and affection on everyone around her, ally and opponent alike, she instilled American politics with a thoughtfulness clearly lacking in the early days of the Republic. Thus did she succeed George Washington as America’s most beloved public figure and come to be called the “Queen of America.”
Such generosity of interest does not describe every story that might appear in HUMANITIES magazine, but it does describe many a reader. For it is, I think, a species of philanthropy that beckons us to learn about and admire a digital project reconstructing the ancient temples of the Egyptian city of Karnak, to know more about the Dictionary of Old English, and to consider the modernist writings of Victor Segalen.
The payoff is not strictly intellectual, but it is at least that. Important stories, interesting stories, by reading and writing them we seek ways to think about value itself.