Putting Culture in the Counterculture


Leon Wieseltier has offered a welcome and inspiring set of reflections for the graduating class of Brandeis University and for many beyond that campus.  In a time when nearly every campus is experiencing a collapse in confidence in the role of the humanities, and a corresponding rush to justify education purely in terms of narrowly-conceived utilitarian ends, his address rightly has garnered attention and praise from those who hold that the humanities remain the best path to affording a truly liberal education fit for responsible citizens and the flourishing of human beings.

His moving words in defense of the “counterculture” of the humanities, set against the increasingly dominant place of instrumental “scientism” in today’s world, perhaps carry distinctive force inasmuch as they come from a self-identified liberal. For many decades, liberals have been deeply critical of the culture-bearing role of the humanities, fearing in such a tradition-based understanding of the humanities the presence of recidivist views about race, gender, colonialism, sexual orientation, and a host of other “conservative” positions. Suddenly a growing number of liberal voices have awoken, as if in suspended animation for thirty years, to discover that the humanities have been all but routed in the name of efficiency, utility and practicality. 

Thus, even while deeply appreciating Wieseltier’s often wise words, one can’t help but read his rousing defense in the light of the Left’s deep complicity in the destruction of the humanities that he otherwise laments. And, given his lack of acknowledgment of that role, and the lack of real attention to what would in fact constitute the “culture” of a counterculture, his address may be far less supportive of the role of the humanities than he, and his sympathetic readers, might hope and expect.  

Wieseltier divides education into two basic approaches.  There are the humanities, devoted to asking questions about “large subjects,” including whether certain answers are “true or false, or good or evil”; and there is scientism, premised upon the dominance of instrumental reason, reducing all concerns to “values of utility, speed, efficiency, and convenience.”  The humanities, by Wieseltier’s telling, have been displaced by an obsession to measure, number, and reduce all phenomena in the name of usefulness.

A Belated Lament 

However, he appeals to a Humanities that was already deeply injured by the Left.  In fact, even while pointing to the rise of instrumentalism in the name of control and mastery, he fails to note that this goal is merely an extension of the basic philosophical commitments of the Left during those dimly-remembered culture wars. While claiming that their critiques of traditional humanities were undertaken in the name of “multiculturalism,” equality, and inclusion, the cultural Left’s position was actually animated by little more than a thinly-veiled assertion of a Nietzschean Will-to-Power. Its attraction to the philosophy of post-modernism – inspired by the work of such thinkers as Heidegger, Paul de Man, Sartre, and Foucault, and Carl Schmitt, among others – understood all human relationships to be assertions of power and domination in one form or another.  While postmodernism purported to be critical of the power in the form of a number of traditional beliefs of the West – whether constitutional democracy (capitalism), classical curriculum (logocentrism), patriotism (colonialism), family (paternalism), marriage (heteromormativity), etc. – in fact its basic conclusion was that one must either wield power or be subject to power.  Claiming equality as its mantle, the ascendant cultural Left “deconstructed” the humanities out of existence, replacing its central place in the university instead with various forms of “identity” (e.g., Women’s, Black, Gay, Latino) “Studies” (the designation “Studies” meant that the subject was not being “studied,” but turned into a political cause).  Postmodernism held that there were no texts, no authors, no rational argument – no tradition.  There were only various forms of power, and what had once been the humanities was transformed into a project of exposing all these forms of power, while taking over the very levers of power of the nations elite institutions, perhaps above all, the universities.

Wieseltier’s lamentation thus comes in medias res, and seems rather disingenuous against the backdrop of this longer story, a bit like Captain Renault claiming to be “shocked, shocked!” to discover gambling in the backroom. For the Left, the traditional humanities were once an obstacle to the achievement of institutional power, and therefore subject to ferocious criticism and displacement; today the weakened remnant of the humanities is appealed to for support against an ascendant “scientism.”  Yet it is at best a tenuous and even absurd demand:  those who once attacked the traditional humanities for the sake of attaining power now appeal to the humanities in the name of limiting the will-to-power of an increasingly utilitarian education.

The Left Can’t Complain 

Wieseltier’s appeal to the humanities calls to mind another recent lament, by Matt Reed on the site “Inside Higher Education,” who bemoaned the comparative absence of “conservative” voices whom he wishes might arise to defend the humanities against the demands for efficiency and reductionist forms of measurement.  In that essay, Reed recalls that the “conservatives” of the 1980s had vocally rallied in defense of the humanistic “tradition.” He writes that during “the canon wars, the ‘conservative’ position involved upholding the idea of humanistic education.  In fact, it held that humanistic education was so important that the prospect of universities doing it wrong was an existential threat to Western society….  Conservatives saw themselves as conserving a tradition, which is their role.  It’s what they do, and it serves an important purpose.”  (Of course, Reed doesn’t pause to note that such conservatives have all but disappeared from today’s college campuses.)  

Reed can wax eloquent about the “important purpose” of “conserving a tradition” today, but that is only because any such tradition has been altogether eviscerated of any real substance on most of today’s college campuses.  At the time of the “culture wars,” there was no such respectful appreciation of the “important purpose” of preserving a tradition; rather, such claims were denounced as so much posturing by defenders of inequality and white, male privilege.  Figures such as Jesse Jackson Jr. marched with a group of protesters on the campus of Stanford University with a bull-horn leading the chant, “Hey-hey, ho-ho, Western Civ has got to go!”  Not only was Stanford’s core curriculum in Western Civilization dismantled, so were most humanistic core requirements at most universities, replaced by a vague and fungible set of “distribution” requirements that were so inclusive as to effectively deny that there was any relevant “tradition” with which all students should be familiar.  Education became highly individualized – the choice of student “consumers” – and faculty abdicated any responsibility and even interest in designing a substantive, shared curriculum.  Instead, the amorphous commitment to “critical thinking” replaced an actual sustained and well-designed education in the humanities.  Into the breach of this abdication filled in hundreds of new administrative positions, along with bloated salaries and ever-increasing tuition costs. Faculty focused increasingly on ever-more narrow forms of research, leaving governance of the university to professional administrators. Such administrators operate in a world defined above all by a concern for efficiency, “standards,” measurable outcomes, and utilitarian ends; they are inclined by position and perhaps disposition to orient education toward such measurable and utilitarian ends and often lack any real intellectual depth that would allow them to articulate a forceful defense of the humanities. The outcome that Wieseltier laments has come to pass not in spite of the strong presence of the humanities on college campuses, but because of their utter and thorough collapse at the hands of the cultural Left.

The paucity of the humanities today is reflected in the relatively weak and even non-existent form to which Wieseltier appeals.  While the title of his remarks suggests that “culture is now the counter-culture,” there is very little evidence of anything resembling a “culture” in in his remarks about the humanities.  He appeals – attractively – to the way that the humanities traditionally held a “belief that the proper subject of human thought are the largest subjects, and that the mind, in one way or another, can penetrate to the very principles of natural life and human life.”  But this appeal – much like Anthony Kronman’s in his similarly appealing book, The End of Education – is essentially content-less. The humanities, as it was traditionally taught in the West, was a tradition with a content as well as a method, and that content – through much of the Western tradition – taught, among other things, about the limits of utility, the paucity of instrumental rationality, the falsehood of reductionist forms of measurement, and the dangers of the pursuit of “control,” whether of humanity or nature.  At the heart of this tradition was an emphasis upon proper human limits, and particularly cautions against either hubris or sin within the natural and created order.  This is the overarching lesson of works ranging from the ancient Greek epics and Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, of the Jewish and Christian traditions, and of a great many more modern authors who drew, most often deeply and explicitly, upon these traditions. And it was precisely this content that was overthrown and often disdainfully dismissed during the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s in the name of liberation from tradition. 

No Real Alternative

Wieseltier at once wishes to appeal to the “alternative” of the Humanities without recourse to any actual substance, and can only suggest a vague and ultimately deeply weakened set of fragments, not unlike those described by Alasdair MacIntyre at the beginning of After Virtue. The appeal to the “humanities” does not ultimately suffice – what is needed is an actual culture (what today would be correctly a “counter-culture”) that is conveyed through the humanities. One wonders how deeply Wieseltier would be committed to a culture often grounded in a religious tradition emphasizing human limits and the need to recognize a natural order to which humans must conform.

Wieseltier has done a great service in calling for the renewal of the humanities and should be rightly praised. But at least a significant part of this “service” consists in revealing how much his lament obscures the role played by the Left in the destruction of the humanities, and to what extent the very concept of a “culture” recedes from our shared understanding. He helps to show – unintentionally, to be sure – how extensive are the ruins left by the Left’s victory in the “culture wars.”  Ironically, the allies who best understood the kind of humanities to which Wieseltier was appealing – who valued the tradition that sought to restrain the will-to-power – have been all but banished from college campuses today.  If an alternative “counter-culture” to that of our dominant will-to-power is to arise from the ashes, one doubts that it will be from today’s college campuses. Those places are today controlled by those who did the dismantling, and who now raise their eyes to discover that they have no roof to protect them from the deluge.

Patrick J. Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at Notre Dame.

(Photo: Leon Wieseltier at Brandeis. Credit: Brandeis.)


One thought on “Putting Culture in the Counterculture”

  1. Brilliant speech and RIGHT on – however is there hope or have we gone too far to the LEFT- Humanities is the key to the University as far as I am concerned but we are now a data driven society with too many administrators who are only interested in control and power – how sad that the counter culture of the 60’s -90’s has reaped a weakened state of mind and a lack of people who cannot stand up for their convictions because they are outnumbered and BULLIED by the so called culture of acceptance of DIVERSITY where we have instead embraced oneness rather than pluralism so much like the drivel that our youth reads of dystopian societies.

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