Why The Humanities?

I have referred to a book by Anthony Kronman defending, if not in fact attempting to resurrect, the humanities. He fails to define quite what he means by the term, but it appears he means what I and others have meant by the liberal arts, namely, those studies that help us better understand what it means to be human and how it is that we are to make sense of a world that seems on its face to be meaningless. His book has the cumbersome title: Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up On the Meaning of Life. Kronman stepped down as Dean of the Yale Law School in order to teach in a Freshmen elective course “Directed Studies” that focuses attention of the Great Books of Western Civilization.

In his book Kronman makes a strong case that the study of such things as great literature, philosophy, history, and the fine arts can help is to gain a wider perspective on our own lives, a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world in which we live. He is convinced, as am I, that in our frenzy to follow wherever science and technology (especially the latter) lead we have lost the better part of ourselves. The only alternative for many people is fundamentalist religion.

Those who teach the humanities in our colleges and universities have bought into such things as political correctness and the research ideal that places careers ahead of classroom teaching and this, according to Kronman, has cost the humanities their very soul. They are dying from self-inflicted wounds, society and the academic community both agree that they have passed their must-sell-by date, they are passé and not worth pursuing. While students need more than ever to wonder what great minds have had to say about the meaning of life, humanities teachers are busy trying to convince the world that they are as respectable as the hard sciences by devising schemes that provide them with spurious “theories” about truth and reality. The end result is postmodernism, with its rejection of Western ideas and ideals.

There is considerable data that suggest that Kronman is correct in his assessment as increasing numbers of students ignore the humanities altogether in their pursuit of a career — which, they and their parents, are convinced, is the sole purpose of a higher education. As Kronman himself puts it:

“However urgently students feel pressed to choose a career, to get in a groove and start moving along, the college years are their last chance to examine their lives from a wider perspective and to develop the habit, which they will need later on, of looking at things from a point of view outside the channels of their careers. This is precisely what [the humanities] encourage. In doing so, they run against the grain of the belief  most students share that there is no point of view outside those channels. That a life is a career is for them an article of faith. [The humanities] put this piety in doubt by insisting on the importance of the idea of life as a whole. For the young person on the threshold of a career, nothing could be more disturbing or helpful.”

In a word, we live at a time when we need to ask the deeper questions about the meaning of our own lives and we are wasting our time, and that of our children and students , in pushing them into narrow career paths from which they lose perspective and forget what is truly important.

Kronmen is a bit overwrought at times and I hesitate to embrace his claims all at once. But he makes a sound point: our confusing and confused times demand a way, other than religious fundamentalism, to escape from the narrow world of self and relish the past accomplishments of our fellow humans, their remarkable accomplishments in the arts, science, and the humanities. We are cutting ourselves off from the past to our own detriment, forgetting those on whose shoulders we must stand if we are ever to get some sort of idea who we are and why we are here.

The colleges and universities are especially to blame for holding the humanistic studies in low esteem, but this simply reflects a world in which the practical and immediate are all-important and the past and the truly remarkable are ignored in an attempt to make ourselves more comfortable and make sure we are up to speed with the latest invention or the latest gadget that we are confident will make our lives more pleasant, if not more meaningful.


9 thoughts on “Why The Humanities?

  1. Well-written, Hugh, and timely, given the divisive and dimwitted nature of our Twitter president and the way social media — with its constant insistence on rushing without thinking, even on supposed “news” which is usually nothing but rumor or gossip. (My wife’s newspaper and the local sheriff’s department dealt with a rash of Facebook gossip in the wake of a fatal car crash last week, in which Facebook users insisted the crash happened on a certain date and involved a hit-and-run, and complained to the paper and sheriff’s office that they didn’t report it that way. Well, of course, it happened on a different date and was not a hit and run — officers and my wife were at the scene quickly after the crash happened. They saw the actual thing, not the Facebook thing at third hand, fourth hand, etc.)

    That’s just an example of the deeper symptoms about which you write, where we do not take the time to think more deeply about a subject or the direction and purpose of our lives. (And it’s not just the young, the Millennials, as so many like to complain about. The middle-aged are just as guilty, if not more, of avoiding deeper, meaningful lives for the sake of careers aimed only at money and material. Just how many accountants and computer technicians do we need?)

    As you know, I’m often less a champion of returning to only traditional humanities, or emphasizing Western thought. There are many great thinkers and writers from other cultures and eras, some far wiser than most Western writers. But there’s also been a lot of dreck that’s crept in in the pushback against Western thought, and that’s unfortunate. We all suffer when there’s this kind of war in academia. In my mind, great is great, no matter who writes or thinks it. We have to be diligent against the mediocre, but leave room for the great no matter their backgrounds. End of the day, I wish we’d all read and talk about the best, the ones who enrich our minds, make us step back and think more maturely and open-mindedly about complex situations, help us see life from many perspectives. Basically make us better citizens of this world. Again, I’m probably greedy. I want both — or I want all, I suppose: Just as writers from other cultures were marginalized for too long, we now risk marginalizing great Western writers who still have plenty of wisdom we should heed. Plato, Dostoyevsky, Flannery O’Connor, Du Fu are a whole lot better to read than what Dick Dimwit types on his smart phone while he drives.

    • Well said, Dana. It’s not about saving Western Civilization form the purblind. It’s about saving the great minds that can improve our own. But the battle seems to have been lost in the Academy as there are simply very few who even acknowledge that there is such a thing as greatness Eastern or Western.

  2. Hugh, well done. We need to include study of the humanities, even at technology schools. One of my favorite observations is innovation occurs at the intersects of various disciplines. Problem solving often needs a different perspective. Steve Jobs knew this.

    But, as you note it is much more than that. We need to be more than just about jobs and careers. We need to think and know why certain things happen. Otherwise, we lose our souls. Great piece. Keith

  3. I doubt I would have crystallised my ethical and moral values had it not been for the Humanities I rigorously studied in my college classes. Dr. Curtler among others had great enthusiasm for teaching these classes, and I consider myself very fortunate to have learned from all the great thinkers and writers that I was exposed to during my undergraduate years circa 1966-1970.

  4. Excellent post Hugh! From my own experiences, the courses I too in humanities and social sciences were the most exciting, the ones that sparked thought … much more so than the dull accounting courses! Which is why I ended up with a double major — Accounting and Poli-Sci. I would have preferred to drop the accounting, but alas, I needed to earn a living. 😉

    Another thought … not only do those who focus on a career to the exclusion of most else lose perspective and forget what is important, but they become unable to converse on any subject other than their career, leading to at least the appearance that they are self-focused and boorish, socially inept and boring.

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