The Humanities: A Laughing Stock?

An excerpt from the new book Education’s End, Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life by Anthony T. Kronman, Sterling Professor of Law, Yale Law School (Yale University Press)

By the early 1970s, the humanities were floundering. Ideological rifts were widening. Traditional ways of teaching had lost much of their authority, and there was worried talk of a “crisis” in the humanities. To many it seemed less clear than it had a quarter century before, when Harvard published its famous report on the aims of liberal education, what the humanities are supposed to do and why their doing it is important. In this anxious and excited environment, a new set of ideas began to gain currency. The first idea was an outgrowth of the civil rights movement and is associated with the concept of diversity. The second generally goes under the name of multiculturalism, and reflected the deepening suspicion of Western values provoked, in part, by the Vietnam War. The third, which provided philosophical support for the other two, I shall call the idea of constructivism, though its supporters have given it a variety of other names (“postmodernism”, “antiessentialism,” and the like). Loosely inspired by the work of philosophers as different as Marx, Nietzsche, and Foucault, constructivism affirmed the artificiality of all human values and the absence of any natural standards by which to judge them. It insisted, in particular, that the values of the West have no inherent superiority over those of other civilizations and are merely instruments of power in disguise that must be unmasked and resisted as weapons of colonial oppression. Together, these three ideas are the source of the culture of political correctness that has dominated the humanities for the past forty years.

Each has something to recommend it. Each has a core of good sense with intellectual and moral appeal. And each draws its appeal from a feature it shares with secular humanism, which also acknowledged the diversity of human values and the need to construct one’s life by making a choice among them. Together these ideas have helped to maintain the confidence of many in the humanities that they do in fact have something special to contribute to the work of higher education. They have helped define a new and distinctive role for the humanities, organized around attractive moral and political values – one that fills the void that opened up when teachers in these fields abandoned their role as guides to the question of life’s purpose and value in favor of the research ideal. And they have done this in a way that appears consistent with the values of secular humanism itself.

But this appearance is a mirage. Secular humanism rested in a balance between the authoritarianism of the antebellum college and the radicalism of the ideas that have dominated the humanities since the 1970s. It occupied an attractive and defensible midpoint between them. The ideas of diversity, multiculturalism, and constructivism exploded this balance. They extended the main principles of secular humanism in ways that do not improve but destroy them, creating an intellectual environment as hostile to secular humanism as the dogmatic classicism of the old-time college had been in a different way. Those who have embraced these ideas have not succeeded in defining a constructive new role for the humanities.They have in fact done just the reverse. They have made their own distinctive authority even harder to recover by casting into deeper doubt the values that once sustained it.

At the same time, they have further weakened the humanities’ already vulnerable claim to respect, as measured by the modern research ideal. Diversity, multiculturalism, and constructivism are ideas that have failed to gain even a modest foothold in the natural and strong social sciences. That is because they are antithetical to the scientific ambitions of these disciplines and to their programs of research. Only in the humanities have these ideas attracted a significant following and been embraced as pedagogical values. The result has been to make the humanities appear even less respectable from the vantage point of those disciplines that have had the greatest success in meeting the demands of the research ideal – the principal source of authority and prestige in American higher education today.
Today, the humanities are not merely in a crisis. They are in danger of becoming a laughingstock, both within the academy and outside it. Looking to build a new home for themselves, they have instead dug a hole and pitched themselves to its bottom…
The belief that diversity is a pedagogical value starts with race and with the claim that race is an important and appropriate criterion for the selection of texts and teaching methods. By endorsing this claim the humanities help to strengthen the legal and political case for affirmative action. But their enthusiastic affirmation of a deep connection between judgment and race – the least mutable, perhaps, of all our characteristics – at the same time undermines the pursuit of the intellectual and moral freedom which the humanities once made it their special business to promote. It subjects the goal of self-criticism to tighter restrictions and makes exhortations to reach it less credible. It strengthens the cynical and despairing belief that we can never see the world from any point of view but the one permanently fixed by our racial identities or escape the gravitational pull of the interests and values these create. The claim that gender should play an important role in deciding what and how to teach has a similarly dispiriting effect, for it too is nearly immutable. And even the idea that ethnicity should play such a role tends in the same direction. Ethnic identity is undoubtedly more fluid and changeable than either race or gender. But to the extent that a person’s ethnicity is conceived in terms conditioned by these other factors – as being nearly as deep and fixed as they – even it is likely to seem a discouragingly high barrier to the achievement of the freedom the humanities promise.

These effects are often balanced or outweighed by forces pressing in the opposite direction. Diversity is only one factor that today exercises an influence on the way the humanities are taught. Other, more traditional values limit its reach. But at the margin, other things equal, the effect of emphasizing the influence of race and gender on a person’s interests and values is to discourage the ambition to gain some critical distance on them. For the more one stresses the depth and pervasiveness of this influence, the more difficult it becomes to believe that one can ever attain a critical perspective of this sort and the harder to sustain the ambition to reach it. The marginal effect of the endorsement of diversity as a pedagogical value is therefore to make this goal more difficult even to aspire to attain and by doing so to further compromise the standing of the humanities, whose own special authority has traditionally been tied to the belief that the enhancement of one’s self-critical powers, and of the freedom they represent, is a goal that is both worthy and attainable.

The pursuit of this goal has traditionally been described as the search for an individual identity of one’s own. But the more students are convinced of the futility of attempting to overcome the influence of their membership in groups that determine their values and from which they can never escape, the more likely they are to adopt a goal of a different kind. The more likely they are to see themselves as representatives of these groups and to define their task as that of being responsible advocates for them. When individuals exchange views as individuals, they converse. Their exchange is characterized by the flexibility that is the hallmark of every real conversation. This is true even if their views are different or antagonistic. By contrast, when two people meet as representatives, they speak not on behalf of themselves but of the groups to which they belong. It is to the group, not to their interlocutor or to the conversation in which they are engaged, that their loyalty is owed. Betrayal no longer means faithlessness to oneself and to the conversation but to the group on whose behalf one speaks. The individuals exchanging views cease to be individuals, and their exchange ceases to be a conversation. Its
personal significance for them declines and its political importance as a negotiation increases.

The more a classroom resembles a gathering of delegates speaking on behalf of the groups they represent, the less congenial a place it becomes in which to explore questions of a personally meaningful kind including, above all, the question of what ultimately matters in life and why. In such a classroom, students encounter each other not as individuals but as spokespersons instead. They accept or reject their teachers as role models more on account of the group to which they belong and less because of their individual qualities of character and intellect. And the works they study are regarded more as statements of group membership than as the creations of men and women with viewpoints uniquely their own – with the depressing result that great works that have been unjustly neglected on account of a shameful discrimination against their creators are finally given their due, but only on the condition that they too be treated as representatives, like the students and teacher in the classroom, and not as individuals whose greatness lies in the singularity of their achievement.

For a classroom to be a productive environment in which to approach the question of what living is for, the students in the class must be personally engaged in the conversation. They must feel free to participate as individuals and not merely as delegates whose first responsibility is to the groups they represent. To the extent they are encouraged to see themselves as representatives instead, the first personal question of life’s meaning is likely to seem less relevant and even, perhaps, self-indulgent. At the same time, they must be open to the possibility that their own ideas about the relative appeal of the different values around which a human life can be arranged may be changed by their encounter with the ideas of their classmates. And for that to be possible, they must view themselves as participants in a shared enquiry, facing the same eternal questions that every human being confronts and struggling together to meet them. These may seem like contradictory requirements – personal engagement and human solidarity. But they represent, in fact, the two sides of a single experience, for it is only on the basis of their common humanity that students from different backgrounds, racial and otherwise, can ever discover or create their shared investment in the intensely personal question of what gives life its purpose and value. The belief that a person’s deepest interests and values are irrevocably fixed by immutable characteristics like race and gender, and that the purpose of classroom instruction is to bring this connection to light, undermines both of these conditions at once. It makes it more difficult for students to venture the personal engagement that any serious conversation about the meaning of life demands by encouraging them to adopt the less challenging posture of representatives instead. And at the same time it makes it harder for students to accept the notion of a common human solidarity that transcends the experience of the particular group to which they happen by fate to belong, whose own more limited life forms a horizon beyond which they can never in any meaningful sense aspire to reach.


One thought on “The Humanities: A Laughing Stock?”

  1. Diversity for those who value it means diversity in terms of race and gender, but not class. Very belatedly, our elite schools have come to realize this.
    Multiculturalism means respecting other cultures’ values in some areas, but not in others. In sports, for example, Americentrism still holds sway at our schools, colleges and universities. The American sports of football and basketball are still dominant. And while the “foreign” sport of soccer is more important these days than it used to be, this isn’t because of a push by multiculturalists but because ordinary people have gotten interested in the sport. I have yet to hear a single multiculturalist demand that we pay more attention to soccer and cricket.
    Finally, the same people who espouse constructivism refuse to denounce the hysteria over global warming, although their own views entail that science is no more than a Western way of looking at the world that is no better than any other.
    Thus, none of these ideas has been thought through very carefully by those who espouse them.

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