Simply because the humanities are often critical in their approach does not mean that they lead people to contest existing political arrangements. Many if not most of the greatest humanistic scholars of all time were enthusiastic advocates — precisely in the context of their scholarly work — of policies that we now regard as self-evidently abhorrent.
Similarly, we should not be misled by the superficial similarities between certain humanistic habits of thought and certain desirable moral dispositions. Humanistic methods of inquiry have no more inherent moral force than do the various methodologies of the natural sciences.
Nor is it prudent to construe the difference between the humanities and other intellectual disciplines that model themselves on the natural sciences as that between the “qualitative” and the “quantitative.” Every intellectual discipline works with empirical facts of some kind (quantitative), and every intellectual discipline relies on concepts and theories (qualitative). And even if we could somehow claim that the humanities had a monopoly on the qualitative aspect as compared to the “merely empirical” sciences, that still would not give us grounds for believing that the humanities are more meaningful and hence that the study of the humanities leads necessarily to a more meaningful life.
In short, the humanities do not have any particular political, moral, or life-enriching tendency “baked in.” What are they good for, then? I don’t think this is particularly hard to answer. The humanities are good for contextualizing and interpreting texts and other text-like human artifacts, particularly artifacts that are regarded as especially authoritative or masterful and that belong to an identifiable intellectual or artistic tradition.
That may sound deflationary, but it is precisely what happens in the classroom and in scholarly work in the humanities disciplines — and year after year, a significant percentage of students (historically, around 17%) find that activity engaging enough to want to devote the bulk of their college work to it, just as we humanities scholars have devoted our entire lives to it. It is a worthwhile pursuit, which does not have to be reduced to a means to a purely utilitarian end or to be hyperbolically inflated into the key to all human meaning (which amounts to reducing the humanities to a means to an end yet again). Students find the pursuit of humanities disciplines worthwhile and compelling, and those who devote their college career to it have just as good a shot at a successful life as those who found other pursuits more worthwhile and compelling during college.
In an ideal world, the discussion would end there, but we don’t live in an ideal world. I’m tired now, though, so I’m going to save my thoughts on the causes behind the predicament of the humanities for a future post.