Rescuing the Humanities from its Advocates

There’s been a lively and useful public conversation, of late, over the value of the study of the humanities, fueled for the most part by recent economic crises. Those crises have caused, in some corners, a push toward making university education more “marketable” by focusing more on vocational and technical training and less on what have traditionally been called the “liberal arts.” A number of commentators have come to the humanities’ rescue, however–but I have to confess I’m beginning to wonder about some of them. Beginning to wonder, specifically, if what is put forward as defenses of the humanities are not, in fact, a subtle–and quite partisan–attack thereon.

The most prominent case-in-point is New York Times columnist David Brooks, who’s come swooping in to the humanities’ rescue in several recent speeches and editorials. In many ways, I appreciate what Brooks has been saying. I agree with his broadest point, which is simply that education has to be about learning to be human, about making meaning out of the confusing world around us, and not just about making a living within it. However, Brooks’ partisanship does tend to poke through in ways that may be as damaging to public attitudes about the study of the humanities as his other comments might be helpful. Consider, for instance, the following passage from an otherwise “pro-humanities” editorial by Brooks in the NYT (June 20, 2013):

But the humanities are not only being bulldozed by an unforgiving job market. They are committing suicide because many humanists have lost faith in their own enterprise.

Back when the humanities were thriving, the leading figures had a clear definition of their mission and a fervent passion for it. The job of the humanities was to cultivate the human core, the part of a person we might call the spirit, the soul, or, in D.H. Lawrence’s phrase, “the dark vast forest.”

This was the most inward and elemental part of a person. When you go to a funeral and hear a eulogy, this is usually the part they are talking about. Eulogies aren’t résumés. They describe the person’s care, wisdom, truthfulness and courage. They describe the million little moral judgments that emanate from that inner region.

The humanist’s job was to cultivate this ground — imposing intellectual order upon it, educating the emotions with art in order to refine it, offering inspiring exemplars to get it properly oriented.

Somewhere along the way, many people in the humanities lost faith in this uplifting mission. The humanities turned from an inward to an outward focus. They were less about the old notions of truth, beauty and goodness and more about political and social categories like race, class and gender. Liberal arts professors grew more moralistic when talking about politics but more tentative about private morality because they didn’t want to offend anybody.

To the earnest 19-year-old with lofty dreams of self-understanding and moral greatness, the humanities in this guise were bound to seem less consequential and more boring.

On the one hand, Brooks’ comment seems to support study in the humanities by noting that it’s part of learning how to be human, to “cultivate the human core.” But then it descries the humanities for leaving that behind to focus on more “external” issues like race, class, and gender, and not-so-subtly attacks those who teach the humanities for forgetting that “human core” in favor of imposing their “ivory tower” agenda on their students, robbing the humanities of their true purpose.

The problem is that consideration of things like race, class, gender, and even of applying what we might call “theory” to the humanities is not, as Brooks implies, some kind of brand new, externally imposed set of values and distinctions that humanists have artificially foisted upon their material. Brooks fails to realize that such issues are endemic to the study of the humanities, not an artificial imposition of unrelated ideas.

For example, one of the first texts we have students read in what we call the “Western Humanities” program (a four-semester “great books” program that integrates study of history, philosophy, theology, art, and literature in a four-semester chronological framework) at the university where I work is the “Funeral Oration” of Pericles in Thucydides’ History of the Pelopponesian War. After exhorting the citizens of Athens to greater sacrifice in their ongoing military endeavors, he adds:

On the other hand, if I must say anything on the subject of female excellence to those of you who will now be in widowhood, it will be all comprised in this brief exhortation. Great will be your glory in not falling short of your natural character; and greatest will be hers who is least talked of among the men, whether for good or for bad.

His speech is often regarded as one of the great “humanist statements,” but here, in one of its final sentences, Pericles makes it clear that the only people with the status of full human in his culture are male citizens. To women who might lament seeing their husbands and sons sacrificed to Pericles’ imperialist project, he simply says “keep your mouths shut.” Thucydides, of course, was under no compunction to include that idea in his record (or fabrication) of Pericles’ speech–so, clearly, he’s aware, and making us aware, that there’s something odd going on there.

We also read the works of people like Walter Rauschenbush and Jane Addams, both devout Christians who, seeing widespread poverty and exploitation of masses of people in the wake of the industrial revolution, see that their fellow Christians are clearly not crossing boundaries of class in order to care for one another as human beings.

We sometimes read the Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, who painfully narrates what it is like to be captured, sold, forced onto a stinking slave ship and then treated as property. As a Christian himself, he highlights the disconnect involved in being a Christian human being–just one with dark skin–in the midst of a European culture that we sometimes say was driven at the time by a philosophy of “Christian Humanism.” When we read the works of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Howard Thurman and others, we realize that the legacy of the culture from which Equiano spoke is still with is in many ways.

In other words, as we read the central “great texts” of the “Western Humanities” we see that one of the big questions in that tradition, one of the central dilemmas involved in exploring the human condition, is the problem of who gets to count as fully human in the first place. Most of the authors we read, then, as humanists, most of the very “great books” that even the most conservative advocate of the dead-white-dude canon would advocate as essential texts in the humanities, are centrally concerned with the ways in which we differentiate the value of persons on the bases of (here it comes) race, class, and gender. One of the central things they notice is that the dark underbelly of the “humanist” tradition is that it some people get to be more human than others.

This is where I find Brooks’ argument potentially contradictory, and even potentially dangerous in terms of advocacy for the humanities: how can we understand what he calls the “human core” without acknowledging that the very “great books” we have used in western culture to study that human core are often centrally concerned the ways in which we use race, class, and gender to divide ourselves and cut some people off from full humanity? To study those things is not, and never has been, an aberration of the study of the humanities. How could humanists be “bulldozing their own enterprise,” as Brooks puts it, by inquiring into issues that have been central concerns of the most canonical “great books” in the western tradition since at least the 5th century B.C.? How could we be making the study of the humanities more esoteric by studying those things in a world in which the very issues of race, class, and gender they address are still some of the most divisive and in-the-headlines problems in our contemporary culture?

Another way of summarizing Brooks’ argument in this light, then, might be to say that Brooks believes that humanists are hamstringing their discipline precisely by engaging in the serious study of the humanities. Fantastic.

To boil it down another way (and include other recent arguments of the same ilk), Brooks and friends seem to believe that:

  • The humanities should study the “great works;” we should study and teach things like the works of Martin Luther King, Jr., Frederick Douglass, Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Upton Sinclair, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman–but we should do so without reference to narrow, effete, ivory-tower, politically-loaded concepts like race, class, or gender.
  • The humanities should emphasize the degree to which a liberal arts education should be more than just an immediate, instrumental path to immediate employment after graduation, by emphasizing all the jobs you can get right after graduation with a liberal arts education.
  • We should emphasize how the humanities provides a deeper understanding of our world and what it means to be human, but we should do so without getting narrow, specific, or technical in our studies. We should talk about all the ways in which the humanities is capable of providing great depth of understanding, but without actually exploring any particular thing in much depth.
  • We should concentrate on the ability of study in the humanities to provide useful frameworks for understanding and organizing their broad experience as human beings in the world–but we should do so without reference to anything that might smack of esoteric, technical academic insider-speak, like “theory.” In other words, we should help students theorize their existence, but without actually engaging in any theory.
  • We should promote the value of the study of the humanities unless students become so convinced of their value that they express the desire to study them past the undergraduate level, in which case we should tell them that’s the worst thing they could possibly do because it makes no practical economic sense. (As a case in point, see Rebecca Schuman’s April 5 Slate article.
  • While scholarship in the sciences that deals with such topics as “Human Airway Epithelial Secretions Inhibit the Formation of Pseudomonas aeruginosa Biofilms” should be considered admirable and noble applications of scientific metholodogies that can provide important insights to a broader field, as well as precisely the kind of specificity required to engage in meaningful scientific study, papers in the humanities (taken from the most recent Modern Language Association Convention) on such subjects as “Why Teach Literature?” and ““Laughing to Keep from Crying”: Pain and Humor” should be considered the meaningless products of an over-specialized, politically-indoctrinated, radically left-wing professorial elite completely detached from the realities of contemporary life.

At the end of the day, I wonder whether some of the most influential enemies of the humanities might be some of those posing as its most vocal advocates.

Written with StackEdit.

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