Saving Liberal Education From ‘The Humanities’


The report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences about the sorry state of the humanities was utterly forgettable, and Andrew Sullivan focused sharply on what’s wrong with it. But I think a bit more should be said in the service of my conservative defense of liberal education, part of which is the defense of the humanities from self-destructive extremes of scientism and relativism. So here goes:

  • It’s not so much that it’s a report from a committee.  It reads like a report from a committee.  When the Continental Congress wanted a declaration of independence, it had Mr. Jefferson come up with rough draft, animated by his singular vision about who we are.  And then it tinkered with the draft to make it a bit more of a consensus.  I wish the Academy had done something like that.
  • The humanities focus on the singular destiny of particular human lives.  That’s why Walker Percy said that all good novelists are existentialists or Christians or Jews–and never Marxists or even Buddhists deep down.  In the sciences and the social sciences, articles are typically “research reports” that often have more authors than pages.  Those reports of the results of experiments and such often begin sentences with “studies show” or, more recently, “data show”–and almost never “I think,” or even “I feel.”  The tone of science is necessarily impersonal; what it describes is a rational and empirically verifiable account of what we see when we abstract from or deny the personal element.  Scientists who know they’re abstracting are alive to the limits of what we can know through their method.  Scientists who don’t know that have fallen prey to scientism.  In our time, a big job of the humanities is to out scientism for what it is, to restore personal sovereignty from the clutches of the experts.  It’s to do what both Aristophanes and Socrates did to the sophists, who thought they knew much more than they really did.
  • So, for example, professors of the humanities should be digging in against “undergraduate research” as an allegedly transformational agenda in higher education.  In the natural sciences, it makes sense that students make their marks by becoming collaborators with their professors in making small advances in the reigning impersonal paradigm.  But in the humanities, students should be thinking and discovering more on their own.  I’m not talking relativism here, but something like this:  When I teach Plato’s Republic, the top students will grasp only a very small part of what could be learned from that great book. They will be alive to very different parts, and what they understand is conditioned, in part,  by their personal experiences.  It’s not that what they understand is “idiosyncratic” or so personal it can’t be communicated to others.  But they shouldn’t be allowed to think that what they understand hasn’t been seen or understood better by those before them.  So students should be writing for the joy of communicating their “insight” to others, but with no intention of being original, much less path-breaking.  Little eviscerates the humanities more than viewing undergraduates as scholars–or specialists without spirit or heart.
  • According to the Academy, the goals of humanities education aren’t drawn from the humanities:  They’re about making producing skillful, innovative, competitive and productive American leaders.  These goals, of course, come from science.  They come, more precisely, from a kind of techno-scientism that views the point of life to be productivity.  Science “alone” can’t accomplish the agenda set forth by techno-scientism.  And so the humanists hope to get a grudging admission that there’s a place for a kind of skillful literacy that techno-specialization can’t generate on its own in achieving practical success.  So the Academy buys into the various pathetic efforts of humanities professors to “brand” what they do in the techno-speak categories of skills and competencies such as critical thinking, effective communication, collaborative learning and so forth.   One job of the humanities should be to mock those categories.  Critical thinking and effective communication are redundancies, just as uncritical thinking and ineffective communication are oxymoronic.  Philosophy, to begin with, teaches clear thinking, just as literature teaches “communication” that is truthful and beautiful.  It’s the sophists who teach “effective communication,” how to win friends and influence people.
  • The humanities, in the old view, are about the purposes or ends of being human.  Technology is about the means–money and power–that should be subordinate to those ends.  Instrumental reason, by its very name, should be at the service of properly philosophical and theological reflection. So those with a technical education should be taking orders from those with a fully liberal education, as they have been, in fact, through most of our history.   Jefferson and Lincoln had a deep appreciation of the place of technology in American flourishing.  But they understood the difference between cultivation of the means for the pursuit of happiness and happiness itself.  When Jefferson thought of happiness, we learn from his letters, he gave us two exemplars:  the philosopher Epicurus and his version of the Jesus of the Bible.  And of course “the self-evident truths” could only be genuinely evident to a self who has reflected seriously–with the help of the key books of the West–about who each of us is.
  • The impoverishment of the commission’s report is reflected in its title “The Heart of the Matter,” as if the “head” were outside the domain of the humanities.  It suggests that science is about the facts, and the humanities about the values.  But the truth is, of course, that philosophy, literature, theology and so forth are modes of knowing.   The idea that the humanities is merely about “values” suggests a relativism that reduces the humanities to far less rigorous and more whimsical modes than “hard” science.  It’s that relativism, of course, that has sometimes been the cause of the decline of the quality of humanistic inquiry in thoughtlessly ideological or “identity politics” directions.  So that relativism has also fueled the despotic pretensions  of scientism:  If the humanities and so self-indulgent and so empty, then technology itself has to step up and  generate ends.  There are no human standards higher than health, safety, and productivity. If that’s the case, then the humanities becomes nothing more than a series of “lifestyle options” or hobbies that can be merely optional components of higher education, options that will routinely be rejected as wastes of big bucks and valuable time. The space abandoned by the humanities through relativism is filled up by scientism.
  • Not only does the Academy’s report do an injustice to the humanities, it does the same to science properly understood.  There’s nothing about the joy of discovery and sharing the truth with others across time and space.  There’s nothing about “the community of knowers and lovers” that should include theoretical physicists, philosophers, novelists, poets, theologians– among others.  Plato, we remember, excelled in all those specialized disciplines, because he thought that the discipline of specialization was at the expense of the comprehensive inquiry required to know who we are and what we’re supposed to do.  So the division of human inquiry into the humanities and the sciences is artificial and alienating.  It clearly at the expense of the humanities.  Theology and philosophy, for example, are sciences–for science is nothing but genuine knowledge of the way things really are.  And there may be no human mode of communication more empirical–not to mention more diagnostic–than a great novel.  Dostoyevsky, for example, had a clearer insight than Darwin or Hegel or Marx about what the 20th century would be like.


2 thoughts on “Saving Liberal Education From ‘The Humanities’

  1. Interesting reflection, and in the main I probably agree. The problem I see here is that “the humanities” may indeed be about “being human.” However what “being human” means is very different across time and space, and very different to billions of humans themselves reflecting upon that (to the extent that most ever do).
    Thus the first goal of the humanities should be to embrace all the differences in that expansively diverse vision so often laughably homogenized as “human self awareness.” As an existential humanist devastated to see my own field colonized and gutted by the least intelligent postmodernists and their tenured religio-orthodox university spawn, I would rather we refer to “humanisms” or “self-awarenesses,” and no, not in the claptrappings of multiculturalism.
    To put it another way, I am reasonably certain that while Mr. Jefferson could consume the texts of Epictetus and Jesus and come to valuable conclusions about “being human,” Epictetus and Jesus themselves might be surprised by some of them, and in utter disagreement with others. For starters, Epictetus was more Buddhist than not, and probably could have been a helluva novelist, had the genre existed. I mean, compare in your imagination what he could have said about slavery and freedom to, say, that dreadful artifact of the 1970s by Alex Haley that is now canonical reading for so many students.
    So I would say that scientism and secularism play a role in understanding “what it means to be human”–as well as historically particularized other views that include pre-scientific and pre-religionist perspectives. “What it means to be human” also includes the experience of the vast majority of humans who never read, never mind wrote, a novel.
    (Though I do find Mr. Lawler’s perspective charming: that he is so enamored of that particular textual fashion. Me, I’m kinda fond of Elizabethan historical poetry for understanding humanity, and also cookbooks. Humans are at their most transparent when unwittingly revealing themselves, and the most opaque when in a stance of projection of supposed self-consciousness; this is why therapeutic culture on college campuses is so toxic. This is also why you never should marry someone till you’ve been with them as they camp in a downpour, deal with a car breakdown, deal with lost luggage, are dead drunk, or are a bystander in a situation of random social violence. It is in our unguarded and non-selfconscious moments that we reveal ourselves and natures. That has always been my gripe with the novel.)
    The problem we face is of will: no one wants to break the news to the kindern that studying humanity requires nads of steel and a lot of effort. “Humanities” have been reduced not to scientism but to the laziest possible pursuit of the easiest consumable gobs of late 20th century orthodoxy. And that, of course, is all about victimology and censorship. And pat answers. By contrast, as my (polymath) teacher used to say, compared to the humanities, math and science were easy, because those fields had answers at the end of the book.
    Thank you for listening.

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