How To Fix the Humanities


Many recent articles say the humanities are in deep trouble on our campuses. Minding the Campus asked seven prominent scholars to respond briefly to this question: “If you could change one thing about the humanities, what would that change be?” Here are the answers from Stephen F. Hayward, Samuel Goldman, James Piereson, Daphne Patai, Patrick Deneen, Peter Wood, and Peter Augustine Lawler.


Steven F. HaywardUniversity of Colorado, Boulder:       

Rescuing the humanities from the slough of postmodernism and its other debilitating afflictions would require replacing many of the current faculty in our universities with new faculty that is not hostile to our civilization and its principles.  This is not going to happen any time soon.

But here’s an alternative that might be practicable to try out: since most of the humanities do not require the close classroom instruction in technical skill like organic chemistry, how about having students in English, history, philosophy, and other humanities courses meet for the first month of classes by themselves–no professors, no teaching assistants.  Just appoint a discussion leader from the class and then read and discuss the texts (original texts only–no textbooks) amongst themselves.  If students feel they need some adult supervision or instruction to keep on track, they could be encouraged to survey the best of the MOOCs on the subject together in class.

Indeed, taking in a range of MOOCs would probably present students with a wider range of views–we might almost say a diversity of views–that would soon find many faculty ideologues and mediocrities with vanishing course registration.  All this needs is a brave provost or dean willing to experiment.  Just the suggestion of something like this recently at San Jose State University provoked a furious faculty backlash.  The provost had suggested using Michael Sandel’s online course on justice; the philosophy department was not amused, which shows it’s probably a good idea.


Samuel GoldmanGeorge Washington University:

Academic specialization is the greatest threat to the study of ideas, literature, and artifacts that we call the humanities. From grad school through tenure review, the institutional structures of departments and universities encourage scholars to pursue short-term projects at the expense of slow reflection, to address a few experts rather than an educated public, and to teach as little as they can get away with. The immediate results are predictable: ever-expanding bibliographies of unreadable and unread publications and course offerings geared toward professors’ research projects rather than students’ needs. So are the long-term consequences: declining interest and support from undergraduates, parents, administrators, and academics in other fields.

The fact that specialized research is boring to outsiders is not unique to the humanities. Few people read scientific journals or take advanced mathematics for fun, either. But the esoteric quality of these pursuits is justified by cumulative nature of the scientific enterprise. In science, small advances can add up to big discoveries.

By contrast, no one needs to keep up with the journals to be enlightened by Aristotle, delighted by Cervantes, or challenged by Wagner. In many cases, encounters with the academic literature have the opposite effect. To put it bluntly, academic specialization makes the humanities boring without offering the reward of intellectual progress, let alone clear technological and economic benefits.

The way to resist or reverse academic specialization is to alter the incentives that define humanists’ careers. If we want more mature, engaging scholarship and attention to undergraduate education, we must reward writing that attracts a broad audience and excellence in general-interest teaching with promotion, job security, and increased pay. It’s a scandal of the modern university that the people who do the most important pedagogical work in the humanities by teaching writing and survey courses are among the least likely to have secure, fulltime positions.

Some academic humanists buy into the fantasy that specialization will restore the dignity of the humanities in comparison to the sciences. Others have been so thoroughly habituated to publishing more and more about less and less that they can’t imagine other goals. But many grad students, junior professors, and members of the reserve army of contingent faculty would happily refocus their efforts on writing for a real audience and teaching beginners if they could earn a living by doing so. Students and the public would be enriched if colleges and universities offered them such a bargain.


James Piereson, William E. Simon Foundation:

The late John Gross wrote a fine book a few decades back titled, The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, in which he connected the disappearance of the “gentleman of letters” in England to the emergence of literature as a field of academic study.  His lesson was that the professionalization of literature was incompatible with the reading and study of literature for its own sake.

What happened in literature has now happened across the humanities. The humanities — art, music, philosophy, literature, and history — must be studied and taught for the elucidation of timeless truths and errors, but that enterprise is difficult to carry forward on the contemporary campus where faculty are preoccupied with narrow specialties and students with vocational preparation.

How, then, to save the humanities? First, one can look to a handful of colleges and universities where the great books of the past are taught and studied in a serious fashion:  St. John’s College in Annapolis and Santa Fe; Columbia University, which still has a core curriculum based upon the great books; Yale University with its Directed Studies Program; and Hillsdale College, Rhodes College, and several others which maintain serious programs of study.  Thoughtful educational consumers can still find good institutions to attend.

Second, for undergraduates and adults wishing to study the great books, we might look to the model of “the free university” – off-campus centers where courses can be offered at night or on weekends, led by instructors who may not be “experts” in the field but who have a real love for the subject matter and an ability to communicate it.  There are many such enterprises in large cities around the country and near major campuses.   There could easily be more of them; and in the age of the internet they are not all that expensive to maintain.  If they are popular enough, such programs of study offered near college campuses might even force the academics to re-think their own programs in the humanities.


Daphne PataiUniversity of Massachusetts, Amherst:

The humanities take patience. Reading a book requires hours of concentration. But in a culture of instantaneous communication and the unimpeded return of what is in effect speedwriting (for which I used to see ads in the New York subways many decades ago), it’s hardly surprising that our students find the effort required for work in the humanities to be too difficult, or too time-consuming, or too irrelevant.

Part of the problem, then, is clearly the speed of the digital age and the effect this has on all aspects of contemporary life. But equally important is what has happened within universities, and that is a redefinition of the very functions and aims of higher education, exacerbated by high college costs and economic crises that make people panic about the possibility of finding a job. Put that together with the desire for the digital gadgets all young people (and older ones too) lust after, and a purely utilitarian attitude toward education is the unsurprising result. Who has time to learn about matters  not immediately directed toward earning a living? Perhaps more serious efforts are made (or required?) in other parts of the university, the more “practical” ones, if not in the humanities, but professors everywhere complain about the deterioration evident in their classrooms.

When one throws into the noxious brew of contemporary university life the fact that not even humanities professors are inclined to defend the value of studying the humanities (and instead turn their courses into ersatz politics, or amusement, or some other more congenial activity), why should students take the humanities seriously? Universities themselves collude:  homework decreases, as does the length of the semester; grade inflation increases, along with the drive for trendy courses.  And, after all, the internet is readily available, with its nearly infinite resources, demonstrating that someone has already written about whatever topic the professor has assigned — in fact, hundreds and thousands of people have done so. “Research” in such an environment becomes degraded to mere information-gathering, and though the internet in fact offers astonishingly rich resources, students don’t usually know how to distinguish among them; they remain satisfied with the millimeter of information they can readily access on any subject. Things are both too easy for them and too hard. Professors, too, complain about being overworked and “required” to publish. Why, then, impose parallel demands on our poor students, and expect them to do any original thinking and serious research in the humanities? Far easier to ask them to keep “journals,” which encourage them to believe that writing their “reactions” is just as good as expecting them to actually think and comprehend material — and then make serious efforts to analyze it. “Critical thinking” has turned into a joke, demanding mostly solipsism and the repetition of some shibboleths.

No one reform can alter this multifaceted problem, and perhaps it is already too late to keep universities from turning into trade schools.


Patrick DeneenNotre Dame:

The humanities, as their name suggests, are fundamentally concerned with human beings.  Originally, their central place in the curriculum derived from the shared belief that one only becomes fully human through education. Their central focus was upon the cultivation of character, including not only what might be known intellectually, but, more fully, how one lived one’s life.  The aspiration of the humanities was the formation of the virtuous human being, one marked not only by academic achievement, but by honor, courage, self-sacrifice, generosity, moderation, comportment, and a willingness to serve as a model for others in society.

Many academic colleagues today complain that students and their parents view education solely through a utilitarian lens – how a college degree can best position young people to succeed in a competitive globalized economy.  However, these academics don’t generally acknowledge their complicity in the rise of narrowly utilitarian considerations implicit in their rejection of character education.  After a lengthy assault on the classical and Christian basis of the humanities, and their replacement with a more instrumental education based upon “research” (i.e., the creation or discovery of “new knowledge”), it can be small wonder that today’s students view education as a box to be checked on their way to their first job.  Today’s faculty immediately suspect perverse motives at the mention of the word “character” as a goal of education.  At the heart of this suspicion is the conclusion that education should not speak authoritatively about the nature of the good life and the good human; at best, we can present and encourage further research findings.

Faculty in the humanities are reaping what they have sown, most centrally, the contemporary conclusion that the humanities are superfluous.  And, indeed, on the basis on which they are now understood by their very defenders – as a set of disciplines that are disconnected with the formation of character – they have made themselves superfluous to STEM and business disciplines that can far more easily prove their instrumental usefulness. The humanities once could speak to the insufficiency of such a view; now, sharing that insufficient view, they lay themselves into a grave that they have dug.


Peter WoodNational Association of Scholars:

Restore the Muses.  Not necessarily all nine of them, but at least the original three Boeotian muses:  Melete, who flows like water and embodies the ideals of thought, meditation, and practice;  Mneme, who comes through the air and embodies memory; and Aoide, who glides on the human voice and embodies song.  The Muses of course were retired a century or so ago as fake and antiquated representations of artistic inspiration.  The humanities, however, are in sore need of their help.

That’s because the humanities today suffer from self-importance.  They seek too much to theorize the world and too little to discern it.  The best work of the humanities is to help us see human excellence: courage, soaring imagination, the capacity of art to leave us awestruck, and mere kindness come within its compass.  But the humanities help us see through the veil that hides the inferno as well: the treason, cowardice, and spite that are also ingredients of our culture and ourselves.

But to open our eyes to what is truly human, the humanities must first bow to the muses.  We have to relearn Melete’s quiet watchfulness.  We must restore Memory to the seat stolen by that modern imposter, Showmanship.  And we need the eloquence and music of Aoide to clear the air of the dismal and confused croaking of the anti-humanist humanities professors.  Of course, I don’t call for literal worship of the ancient Greek muses.  But they distill a vision of an ennobling purpose that has been lost.  And they can guide us back.


Peter Augustine LawlerBerry College:

The humanities should get back to what they were doing when they were flourishing in our country.  That was during the “existentialist” moment that began after World War II and persisted through part of the Sixties. The focus was on the singular destiny that is one’s own life in a world deformed by technology and ideology–the world that had produced mass slaughter of world war and the mass terror of totalitarianism.

The distinction between philosophy and literature disappeared. The insufficiency of philosophic prose to save reflection on the personal predicament from the clutches of theory explains why philosophers such as Sartre, Camus, and Walker Percy wrote novels. During our existentialist moment, no serious person doubted for a moment that the “humanities” were about discovering who we are and what we’re supposed to do.  And so the humanities–philosophy and literature–were embraced as our antidote to the dehumanizing extremes of scientism and relativism.

The humanities began to decline when they stopped focusing on the inward life of the particular person and turned outward in the direction of reading texts with the intention of discrediting their claims for truth by exposing their racism, classism and sexism. “Political correctness” displaced “man’s search for meaning.” Any serious person knows that the issues of race, class, and so forth have already been resolved, but that resolution says nothing significant to the particular person experiencing the hell of “pure possibility” (or lack of authoritative guidance) in our high tech-world, one which is all about the “how” but silent on the “why.”

As Alexander Solzhenitsyn noticed, just beneath the surface of our happy-talk techno-pragmatism it’s easier than ever to hear “the howl of existentialism.” We howl, so to speak, because we lack the words to express our lonely disorientation.  So the humanities will become relevant again when they get back to addressing that howl with words that illuminate its cause.  They should get back to addressing the Socratic questions–questions about God and the good, to begin with–that have always animated the truthful serious and joyful study of our best books.

4 thoughts on “How To Fix the Humanities

  1. How about offering only the seven traditional liberal arts majors? Get rid of Basket Weaving, Victim Studies (i.e. “Black Studies”, “Womyn’s Studies” et al.) and really focus on philosophy, history, rhetoric, etc. Require a foreign language, and at least a few courses in Greek and Latin. (That alone should screen out many of the relativist yahoos.) Make a humanities degree worth something by making it as challenging as a STEM degree.
    It’s doubtful that a modern university administration would have the courage to do this, but it’s very heartening that many seem to realize that there’s a problem, and it’s clear from this article that at least some of them are leaning in this direction.

  2. This fall I’m teaching one of those “problem of technology” courses where you spend half the semester reading literature and the other half reading philosophy/theory and then conclude with a quick look at policy problems. After the midterm the students will watch and discuss the Alfonso Cuaron film Children of Men, and then pick a second movie from a list and compose what I’m calling a “scholarly movie review”. What makes it scholarly? They are expected to answer two questions: What does the film mean, and is it true? They’re also supposed to incorporate at least one of the novels read for class in their review, for purposes of comparison.
    Perhaps reinvigorating the humanities begins with something as simple as asking questions like these of the works we assign in our courses. There is, after all, bound to be spirited debate over which answers to these questions are best, or most complete. I’ll be sure to report my “findings” to anyone interested. Thanks to all for your thoughtful and brief posts.

  3. How about eliminating tenure of new faculty? It will eliminate those dull intellectuals who seek the refuge of the university and are comfortable having someone else pay for everything. Then adults might start to trickle in — those who know what it is to be productive.

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