Towards a Norton Anthology of Lifehacking
Alain de Botton writes in The Wall Street Journal about the School of Life he helped found in London in order to teach people how to live through the humanities. In searching for the purpose of a humanities education amidst globalization and the endless breeding race among industrialized nations to produce the next great engineer who can produce the next cheapest plastic, he finds that the professors themselves are no help, bristling at any suggestion of utility.
It is a basic tenet of contemporary scholarship that no academic should connect works of culture to individual sorrows. It remains shocking to ask what "Tess of the d'Urbervilles" might usefully teach us about love or to read the novels of Henry James as if they might contain instructive parables.
De Botton can trace pragmatic applications for the liberal arts as far as John Stuart Mill and Matthew Arnold: "These well-meaning mid-Victorians wanted universities to become our new churches, places that would teach us how to live, but without dogma or superstition." When Seneca can be used as a text on anger management, however, it's likely that these practical uses even further predate their abstract counterparts in the ivory tower.
My own answer to what the humanities are for is simple: They should help us to live. We should look to culture as a storehouse of useful ideas about how to face our most pressing personal and professional issues. Novels and historical narratives can impart moral instruction and edification. Great paintings can suggest the requirements for happiness. Philosophy can probe our anxieties and offer consolation. It should be the job of a university education to tease out the therapeutic and illuminative aspects of culture, so that we emerge from a period of study as slightly less disturbed, selfish and blinkered human beings. Such a transformation benefits not only the economy but also our friends, children and spouses.