A Wretched Defense of the Humanities

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The American Academy of Arts and Sciences has just issued
the Heart of the Matter, a 61-page
report (plus appendices) aimed at persuading Congress to spend more money on
the humanities.  This is one of the report’s
immediate goals, phrased of course in the financial imperative, “Increase
investment in research and discovery.” 
The report as a whole is presented as a response to a “bipartisan
request from members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives” in
2010.  The American Academy took up this
request and appointed a 54-member commission to figure out what “actions” are
needed to “maintain national excellence in humanities and social scientific
scholarship.”

Let’s see.  That works
out to 1.1296 pages of report per commissioner. 
Many of the commissioners also appear in a 7-minute accompanying video, which begins with the actor (and
commissioner) John Lithgow explaining that the humanities are the “beautiful
flower” at the end of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and
math.)  With a piano softly playing
Christian Sinding’s Rustles of Spring
in the background and a camera exploring the petals of a yellow gerbera, Lithgow
continues, “Without the blossom, the stem is completely useless.”  Cut to George Lucas, Rustling Spring pianissimo: “The sciences are the how and the humanities are the why.” Cut to the Milky Way with Lucas’s
voiceover, segueing to architect Billie Tsien, “The measurable is what we know
and the immeasurable is what the heart searches for.” 

The video portion of the Heart
of the Matter
is beautifully produced, as I suppose one might expect from a
commission that included Ken Burns as well as George Lucas.  But it is, I suspect, not terribly
persuasive.  It comes across as the
high-minded extolling high-mindedness and perhaps thinking a little too well of
themselves for their act of generosity. 

The humanities does get the privilege of contemplating some
of the more uplifting aspects of our kind. 
Courage, kindness, and faithfulness come within its compass.  But so too do humanity’s deepest dyed
iniquities.  It takes a humanist to plumb
treason’s serpentine pride; to come alongside Othello’s green-eyed monster; or to
exalt over the corpses of his enemies with Achilles. That side of things is,
let’s say, not part of the pitch in the video or the report.

Although it may have a ghost-like presence in the
title.  The Heart of the Matter, of course, was the title of Graham Greene’s
great post-war novel about a guilt-ridden British policeman in colonial West
Africa whose altruism is confounded by his fecklessness.  His final act of supposed generosity is
suicide, but even that fails to achieve its intended purpose. 

But I rather doubt that the Commission was being so ironic.  Its tone is much too sententious to have
reckoned with the possibility that the humanities have charted a course in
recent years in which high aspiration is so inextricably mixed with
self-destruction.

The opening statements on the video do quite accurately
capture the anxiety at the heart of the report itself.  The sciences are thriving.  Captains of industry, political leaders, and
the opinion-shapers of all sorts thunder about the importance of educating the
coming generation in the sciences.  Are the humanities to be left in the
dust? 

It is a fate not easily skirted.  The New York Times put the report in
context by noting the mere 7.6 percent of bachelor’s degrees granted in the
humanities in 2010 and the long, steep slide in humanities majors at Harvard
from 36 percent of the undergraduates in 1954 to 20 percent today. Where have
the students gone?  It is not that they
are defecting en mass to biomedical
engineering or fractal geometry.  The
burgeoning undergraduate majors are fields such as business, economics, and
international relations.  Economics can
be squeezed into the humanities, and the Commission does mention economics as
one of the valuable social sciences, but it doesn’t really appear to be “the
heart of the matter.”

The report is actually a bit vague about what the humanities
actually are.  The executive summary throws
a wide lasso:

Emphasizing critical perspective and
imaginative response, the humanities–including the study of languages,
literature, history, film, civics, philosophy, religion, and the arts–foster
creativity, appreciation of our commonalities and our differences, and
knowledge of all kinds. The social sciences reveal patterns in our lives, over
time and in the present moment. Employing the observational and experimental
methods of the natural sciences, the social sciences–including anthropology,
economics, political science and government, sociology, and psychology–examine
and predict behavioral and organizational processes. Together, they help us
understand what it means to be human and connect us with our global community.

Wide lassos are good equipment for capturing concepts as big
as “the humanities,” but the Commission’s list lacks the basic sense of
order.  It comes close to admitting that
the humanities are just the category of “everything else” after you subtract
the sciences from the curriculum. 

But let’s take the formulation at face value.  The key ideas are (1) critical perspective,
(2) imaginative response, (3) creativity, (4) appreciation of commonalities and
differences, (4) knowledge of all kinds, and adding the social sciences, (5) examining
and predicting behavior.  All these
together conduce to (6) understanding what it means to be human, and (7)
connecting us to our global community. 
If you take the first item seriously (“critical perspective,”) the rest
of the list looks a little wobbly. 
That’s because the natural sciences are every bit as creative, focused
on human commonalities and differences (think of DNA), deal in “knowledge,”
etc.  What it means to be human is at
least as much a scientific question as a humanistic one.

I don’t really want to be obstructionist.  The humanities are important and, in
principle, deserve a robust defense.  But
I have to wonder how carefully thought-out The
Heart of the Matter
is.  If the goal
was merely to perform some old songs from the songbook, or to twirl the lasso
around in lasso tricks, I guess these bland formulations will do.  But it would have been nice to see an
intellectually more serious effort.  The
humanities haven’t existed forever.  They
are a division of human inquiry and teaching that grew out of a particular
tradition.  Humanistic learning was, for
many generations, deemed essential for the man who sought to enter public life,
and it was also taken as the indispensable grounding for the worthy life of a
free individual. 

Those views may have been mistaken, but mistaken or not,
they no longer have much grip on Americans. 
We have been slowly dispensing with humanistic learning for a very long
time.  Think back to Justin Morrill, the
Vermont Congressman who in the midst of the Civil War succeeded in passing the
bill that authorized the creation of the land grant universities.  Morrill fiercely opposed having the
humanities play any part in these new institutions. His opposition was
eventually worn away by the universities themselves, but he stands as perhaps
the best expression of 19th America’s distrust of the humanistic
tradition.  How many Harvard graduates
did America need?  Morrill thought, ‘not
so many.’

The great 20th century democratization of higher
education was intermittently friendly toward the humanities but mass higher
education is not really a great fit with the strenuous ideal that students
should wrestle with the obdurate materials of human excellence and folly.  Mass education throws its emphasis on
credentialing students for productive and prosperous careers.  The humanities occasionally lend themselves
to that purpose, but it isn’t their primary business. 

We can inventively shoehorn the humanities into serving
practical goals.  And that indeed is what
the Commission seeks to do.  Study the
humanities, it says, because if we don’t there will be “grave, long-term
consequences for the nation.”  But what
they mean is that mass literacy is a good idea; voters and consumers should be
“informed”; lots of “resources” should be available online; teachers should be well-prepared
(and have their student loans forgiven!); foreign languages should be taught;
and we should encourage more study abroad. 
That’s not the whole list of desiderata but the rest of it is similar–practical
policy proposals that have thin connections to the humanities as such. 

Unless, of course, you redefine the humanities as whatever
college professors in the traditional humanities disciplines happen to be
teaching at the moment. 

And that seems to be the whole game. The Commission pretends
to speak with the authority of Erasmus or Diderot about the importance of a
human-centered curriculum, but all it really musters is the voice of a middling
utilitarian.  Reading the report brought
to mind Jonathan R. Cole’s The Great American University.  Cole, a former Columbia University provost,
delivered this tome several years ago in which he rehearsed the great
accomplishments–mostly in the sciences–of American research universities as
part of an argument for more and still more public funding. 

The Heart of the
Matter
has still other ventricles.  For unknown reasons, the Commissioners
devote several pages to plumping the importance of the Common Core State
Standards for K-12 education.  Whatever
the merits of those standards, they have virtually nothing to do with improving the situation of college-level humanities.  Possibly they cut in the opposite direction
through their emphasis on reading “informational texts” and their pedagogical
focus on minimizing attention to historical context and background
knowledge.  But in The Heart of the Matter, we get eight pages of explanation of how
the Common Core will strengthen literacy, prepare citizens, and support
teachers. 

The Commission was co-chaired by Richard Brodhead and John
Rowe.  Rowe is the retired chairman of
Exelon Corporation, who has contributed a lot of time, attention, and money to
promoting charter schools.   Brodhead is
the president of Duke University and I suppose such an established figure that,
at least in the eyes of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he has lived
down his infamous behavior during the Duke lacrosse affair.  Perhaps in polite company that shouldn’t be
mentioned, but I confess I was astonished to see him put forward as the primary
academic figure behind this report.  If
we are to make the case for the humanities as the ennobling part of higher
education, might it be better to do so under the symbolic leadership of someone
who has modeled courage, temperance, and faithfulness to the actual ideals of
disinterested judgment?

But that’s just a petal falling from the “beautiful
flower.”  The video, with Rustles of Spring tinkling underneath
the somber voices of Yo-Yo Ma, Earl Lewis, David Brooks, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Sandra
Day O’Connor, etc. is little more than a parade of balloons but it has the
charm of well-picked metaphors.  The
report, alas, has not even that. 

Is there a better way to promote the humanities?  I am inclined to think the humanities thrive
when the humanists are self-evidently offering good and important work.  The humanities decline when they descend into
triviality.  The answer to a nation skeptical
of these disciplines is not more balloons, nor better metaphors, or even
better-crafted reports.  It is better
work.  

Peter Wood

Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.”

7 thoughts on “A Wretched Defense of the Humanities

  1. “Stories of students arguing with an instructor and failing abound.”
    Not all students lost the battle of wits with the instructor. Some more than held their own, trust me… 🙂
    Some were even able to hold their own against not only the instructor but the entire class as well — as Thomas Jefferson possibly once said, “a man with courage is a majority.”
    This actually is why they started instituting the “Behavioral Intervention Teams” — defining outspoken conservative students as “dangerous” (which, in a way, I guess they are) and then using “Star Chamber” methods to silence these problematic free thinkers.
    After all, much like in the former Soviet Union where refusal to accept Communism as superior to any other ideology was proof of insanity (“Sluggishly Progressing Schizophrenia”), refusal to accept the ideological bias of academia is proof that one will be the “next Virginia-Tech shooter.”
    The sad thing is that I only wish I was making this up — it’s real and I can document it.

  2. I think your last paragraph touches on it but also misses part of it. I majored in the hard sciences but minored in history: I considered literature but even when I was in school we were seeing the start of the political correctness, polarization of the classroom, and modern criticism (whatever the formal name of that horror that crawled out of Duke is.)I grew up with poetry: I had friends amazed stuff like Kipling, Yeats, Browning, etc existed. Their lit class started with Cummings.
    “there’s no there there” as slang says. Critical thinking isn’t taught: classes are too politically correct and polarized for that. Stories of students arguing with an instructor and failing abound. Literature has become an exercises in fake Freudian or Marxist analysis. Heavily focused on woman writers, it’s agony for biys in high school and worse in college. The studies (pick your race, ethic group, or sex) are drivel. History has become a study in how Europeans suck. Why bother?
    Until it does go back to the stuff you mention – either Achilles’ pride or Virgil’s wisdom – and let people read and understand the books, not daydream about the motivations of the author, why bother? One can still get the thrill of reading “Of Arms and the Man I sing” while majoring in something sane like Engineering. Snow was both right and wrong: what he missed was without the connection to reality in the science, without the how, the why is meaningless.

  3. When they want money, they’ll tell you about Shakespeare and Plato, the life of the mind that can’t be quantified in mere utilitarian terms, and the beautiful things that make life worth living…
    Once they get the money and the door is closed, they tell students that nothing is better than anything else, that S&M pornography is as worthy a topic of study as said Shakespeare and Plato, who are just dead white men, and offer academic credit for non-academic political activity advancing the instructor’s pet causes…

  4. The problem, in a word, is post-modernism. The entire point of an education in the humanities and the classics was that this was the heritage of mankind which would help illuminate our current travails and help to place them in perspective. Implicit in that curriculum was a value judgment–this writing is of greater quality, of more importance, than another. The assault on the canon by the barbarians of post-modernism (the vanguard of whom should well have understood what they were doing) has left entire disciplines with, literally, nothing of importance to say.
    The great works are still there, of course. That’s because they are great. But students who deserve as part of their education a tutorial on them will either have to do it individually or approach it through a discipline that has not fallen completely to the rot of subjective truth.

  5. William Weld and William Bulger are two very different but both quite successful Massachusets politicians — one a former governor and the other former head of the state senate. Both have a solid background in Classical Greece and used quotations and references from the same to their benefit. I have personally seen each do it.
    That’s a far cry from the average “Social Justice” or “Women’s Studies” major of today and the pathologically ideological brainwashing that passes for education — business is practical and really doesn’t care whom she hates as long as she can write a coherent memo to corporate about something business-related but she can’t.

  6. Let them get back to me when graduates from “Wymyn’s Studies” – or whatever – can earn salaries that compete with scientists or engineers.

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