Monday, January 20, 2014

The Humanities and Us. By Heather Mac Donald.

The Humanities and Us. By Heather Mac Donald. City Journal, Winter 2014.

Students Tuning Out Humanities Professors. By Walter Russell Mead. NJBR, November 1, 2013.

Who Ruined the Humanities. By Lee Siegel. NJBR, July 17, 2013. With related articles.

Humanities Committee Sounds and Alarm. By Jennifer Schuessler. NJBR, June 22, 2013. With related articles and studies.

The Humanities and Common Sense. By Roger Berkowitz. NJBR, February 20, 2013. With related articles.

Mac Donald:

Yet the UCLA English department—like so many others—is more concerned that its students encounter race, gender, and disability studies than that they plunge headlong into the overflowing riches of actual English literature—whether Milton, Wordsworth, Thackeray, George Eliot, or dozens of other great artists closer to our own day. How is this possible? The UCLA coup represents the characteristic academic traits of our time: narcissism, an obsession with victimhood, and a relentless determination to reduce the stunning complexity of the past to the shallow categories of identity and class politics. Sitting atop an entire civilization of aesthetic wonders, the contemporary academic wants only to study oppression, preferably his own, defined reductively according to gonads and melanin. Course catalogs today babble monotonously of group identity. UCLA’s undergraduates can take courses in Women of Color in the U.S.; Women and Gender in the Caribbean; Chicana Feminism; Studies in Queer Literatures and Cultures; and Feminist and Queer Theory.
Today’s professoriate claims to be interested in “difference,” or, to use an even more up-to-date term, “alterity.” But this is a fraud. The contemporary academic seeks only to confirm his own worldview and the political imperatives of the moment in whatever he studies. The 2014 Modern Language Association conference, for example, the annual gathering of America’s literature (not social work) faculty, will address “embodiment, poverty, climate, activism, reparation, and the condition of being unequally governed . . . to expose key sites of vulnerability and assess possibilities for change.”
. . . .
Yet though the humanist spirit is chugging along nicely outside the university, the university remains its natural home, from which it should not be in exile. We have bestowed on the faculty the best job in the world: freed from the pressures of economic competition, professors are actually paid to spend their days wandering among the most sublime creations of mankind. All we ask of them in return is that they sell their wares to ignorant undergraduates. Every fall, insistent voices should rise from the faculty lounges and academic departments saying: here is greatness, and this is your best opportunity to absorb it. Here is Aeschylus, whose hypnotic choruses bear witness to dark forces more unsettling than you can yet fathom. Here is Mark Twain, Hapsburg Vienna, and the Saint Matthew Passion. Here is the drama of Western civilization, out of whose constantly battling ideas there emerged unprecedented individual freedom and unimagined scientific progress.
Instead, the professoriate is tongue-tied when it comes to promoting the wonders of its patrimony. These privileged cowards can’t even summon the guts to prescribe the course work that every student must complete in order to be considered educated. Need it be said? Students don’t know anything. That’s why they’re in college, and they certainly don’t know enough to select courses that will give them the rudiments of culture. The transcripts that result from the professoriate’s abdication of its intellectual responsibility are not a pretty sight, featuring as many movie and video courses as a student can stuff into each semester.
When the academy is forced to explain the value of the humanities, the language that it uses is pathetically insipid. You may have heard the defense du jour, tossed out en route to the next gender studies conference. The humanities, we are told, teach “critical thinking.” Is this a joke? These are the same people who write sentences like this: “Total presence breaks on the univocal predication of the exterior absolute the absolute existent (of that of which it is not possible to univocally predicate an outside, while the equivocal predication of the outside of the absolute exterior is possible of that of which the reality so predicated is not the reality. . . . of the self).”And we’re supposed to believe that they can think? Moreover, the sciences provide critical thinking skills as well—far more rigorous ones, in fact, than the hackneyed deconstructions of advertising that the left-wing academy usually means by critical thinking.
It is no wonder, then, that we have been hearing of late that the humanities are in crisis. A recent Harvard report, cochaired by the school’s premier postcolonial studies theorist, Homi Bhabha, lamented that 57 percent of incoming Harvard students who initially declare interest in a humanities major eventually change concentrations. Why may that be? Imagine an intending lit major who is assigned something by Professor Bhabha: “If the problematic ╬ęclosure≈ of textuality questions the totalization of national culture. . . .” How soon before that student concludes that a psychology major is more up his alley?
No, the only true justification for the humanities is that they provide the thing that Faust sold his soul for: knowledge. It is knowledge of a particular kind, concerning what men have done and created over the ages. The American Founders drew on an astonishingly wide range of historical sources and an appropriately jaundiced view of human nature to craft the world’s most stable and free republic. They invoked lessons learned from the Greek city-states, the Carolingian Dynasty, and the Ottoman Empire in the Constitution’s defense. And they assumed that the new nation’s citizens would themselves be versed in history and political philosophy. Indeed, a closer knowledge among the electorate of Hobbes and the fragility of social order might have prevented the more brazen social experiments that we’ve undergone in recent years. Ignorance of the intellectual trajectory that led to the rule of law and the West’s astounding prosperity puts those achievements at risk.
But humanistic learning is also an end in itself. It is simply better to have escaped one’s narrow, petty self and entered minds far more subtle and vast than one’s own than never to have done so. The Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino said that a man lives as many millennia as are embraced by his knowledge of history. One could add: a man lives as many different lives as are embraced by his encounters with literature, music, and all the humanities and arts. These forms of expression allow us to see and feel things that we would otherwise never experience—society on a nineteenth-century Russian feudal estate, for example, or the perfect crystalline brooks and mossy shades of pastoral poetry, or the exquisite languor of a Chopin nocturne.
Ultimately, humanistic study is the loving duty we owe those artists and thinkers whose works so transform us. It keeps them alive, as well as us, as Petrarch and Poggio Bracciolini understood. The academic narcissist, insensate to beauty and nobility, knows none of this.
And as politics in Washington and elsewhere grows increasingly unmoored from reality, humanist wisdom provides us with one final consolation: there is no greater lesson from the past than the intractability of human folly.