Wasting Time

It would appear that I have been wasting my time. If John Carroll is right, and I think he is, the humanities I attempted to pass on to the younger generation are dead. Indeed, they have been dying for some time. I have suspected this, but Carroll’s argument in The Wreck of Western Culture is very persuasive.

Bear in mind that I do not agree with everything I read. Indeed, I have been trained to read with a critical eye. But Carroll makes a persuasive case and given that the signs he points to are all around us and I have even noted many of them myself, there’s little more to be said.

The humanities have traditionally included the fine arts, literature, philosophy, history, and other endeavors now regarded as “elitist” and generally ignored. And there’s the rub. Carroll saw the creations flowing from those endeavors grow and thrive as Western Civilization worked its way from ancient Greece through Christianity, especially during the Dark Ages, to the Reformation which sought to bring new life to the basic tenets of Christianity that were dying from the intolerant nature of the Catholic Church with its purges and Inquisitions. The Renaissance and then, especially, the Enlightenment brought about an explosion in human creativity and invention; in the process it was insisted that religion is superstition and man is free and capable of solving all problems with his reason alone. In Descartes’ words, we need only heed “clear and distinct” ideas to answer all the questions that can possibly be raised. The avenue to absolute certainty does not lie with revelation; rather, it lies with mathematics and empirical science.

With modern science came longer, less painful lives, but also the industrial revolution, and eventually capitalism and all have transformed culture while at the same time disenchanting our world, dismissing out of hand all of the things in heaven and earth that are not dreamt of in science.  Humanism, as it came to be called, lasted several centuries and eventually was given a death blow by such thinkers as Karl Marx and Charles Darwin who insisted that humans are not truly free and even reason is not sufficient; economics and natural selection govern everything. Regarding Darwin, Carroll notes,

“The new scientific picture of the world is utterly dispiriting. . .. . in the shoes of Darwin the joyful bird song at dawn is transformed, at best, into intellectual curiosity about a species sending his warning signals in defense of its territory. Once one begins to think like this — about birds, newborn babies, romance, death — the magic is compromised.”

Marx’s influence may have gone even deeper. As Carroll put it:

“The cultural consequences of Marx were that selfishness and economics rule, that culture is merely a cloak disguising base bourgeois motives; unconsciously, the gods of culture have betrayed us, so let us annihilate them. . . .No honor, no trust, no fidelity — nothing but greed.”

Now whether or not one agrees with Carroll’s rather bleak pronouncements, they do give us pause. Careful studies back up the signs I have pointed to in numerous blogs, especially of late, making it clear that those of us who have been teaching the humanities (in my case for over 40 years) were fighting a rear-guard battle, because the humanities were expiring even as we tried to breath life into the dying corpse. Students, and a great many professors simply do not care. The colleges and universities are now overrun by barbarians who have embraced a nihilistic attitude toward everything in the past. It is time to “do-over.” And their behavior, including their unqualified postmodern commitment to such thing as political correctness, has become the way to do things. We will eliminate the dead, white European males and replace them with like-minded men and, especially, women who will indoctrinate the young properly. Meanwhile the streets are overrun by self-absorbed seekers of more and greater profits who couldn’t care less about the past or the heights to which the human spirit can aspire.  Brace yourselves: we have entered a new era.

To be sure, we see around us the decaying corpses of the dead, white European males and the great works they created and which are now regarded as past their prime and not worth our effort. At best, they will be museum pieces visited by a decreasing number of people as time passes, those few who still care. So along with a Christianity that was based on love of our fellow humans and adherence to those virtues that make it possible for us to lead a good life, we turn our backs on the humanism that raised humanity to great heights, created extraordinary works of beauty and imagination while influencing a great many people and giving birth to, among other things, modern science — which survives independently, largely reduced to technical expertise and invention. And never asking moral questions.

So it goes. I guess I have suspected it for some time now. But it is hard to admit that the things one fought for have “come a cropper” as the Brits would say. The humanities have had their day. But what really rankles is the obvious fact that what is taking the place of the humanities and Christianity is nothing more and nothing less that a vapid nihilism, a new barbarism, nesting comfortably in an egoism that seeks only pleasure and which cannot see beyond the eradication of what has been in the name of the new and the now.

The time has come to accept the facts that have been announcing themselves loud and clear for some time now.



14 thoughts on “Wasting Time

  1. I don’t know if exploring the causes of this decline in interest of the humanities will make anyone feel any better?
    I speculate that the decline in interest may be the symptom of other problems.
    I think the root cause problems are the widening wealth gap between rich and poor, increasing population, and the effects of “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.”

    Abraham Maslow’s theory states that you cannot rise to higher pursuits such as self actualization (art, philosophy, music) until the basic physical needs (shelter, food, safety) are met. If his theory has validity, then the poor (and working poor) never get to rise to the higher pursuits, because they are too busy trying to satisfy the basic needs.
    Rising populations create more and more competition for jobs, food & education, to the point where people are busy trying to out-do their competition all the time – survival of the fittest.
    The increasing population also has the effect of devaluing the cost of labor. The existence of poor, desperate people means that you will likely find someone who is willing to work for a lower wage. Thus, the average wage is held down.
    As long as the wealthy in control of business and industry are able to employ people who are willing to work for a lower wage, wages will stay stagnant. Lower wages mean higher profits for the wealthy, and thus the wealth gap widens.

    Competition seems to be starting earlier and earlier, in life.
    I see evidence of competition for toddlers to get into good pre-schools.
    Ultimately, the competition continues through grade school, high school, college and ultimately, in the working world. With such a system in control, I think it channels the students towards classes that “pay off”, or nearly guarantee them a good paying job, so they can have their basic needs met, and hopefully rise to the higher pursuits. In most student’s lives, classes in creative writing, theater, art, music or philosophy aren’t as likely to turn into a good paying job, and are thus not of much help towards a “real world job”.

    Speaking personally, I came from a family that was on or around the poverty line. Since college degrees are not free, my sister and I studied our butts off in high school, hoping for college scholarships with the goal of getting good paying jobs to propel us out of that poverty. We were both successful and got enough financial aid from Pell grants and other academic scholarships to enable us to enter college and complete a degree. In college, I wanted to be sure I got a degree that would deliver a good paying job. I was already an amateur radio operator and interested in electronics. Engineering seemed the right path for me. I focused on classes to get me to the goal of the engineering degree. I took the required classes in humanities, social sciences, but little more. It would have been nice to explore classes not related to getting a job, but I didn’t feel I could afford it.
    Staying focused on job-related classes worked for me. It allowed me to complete a degree in 4 years, and less than $6,000 in debt. Over the last 25 years, I have become a competent electronics engineer and have been able to rise above the basic physical needs levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, including music and some self actualization. I stayed focused and worked for it, but I still feel lucky to have risen above the poverty line, in this world of growing competition. Even now, there is competition for raises at work. The more productive worker gets a higher raise. I guess, competition nips at your heels your whole life.

    In summary, I’m not saying the decline in interest of humanities is a good thing, but I think I can see the forces that are causing it to happen. I think reversing those causes is going to take a lot of work, because everyone on planet Earth (both rich and poor) is going to have to cooperate.

    • My goal in writing these blogs is not to make people feel better. That explains why I have so few readers! But, to your point, you are simply pointing out what I have said all along: Western high culture, for better or worse, is being replaced by a commodified culture. Going to college should never have been about getting a job and it is not at all clear that the humanities will not lead to a job and even to faster promotions — there are numerous examples. What is lost in the relacement of high culture that appeals to few with a commodified culture that appeals to all is the absence of those values that have made the country great and Western countries generally more self-aware. In the end, the trend cannot be reversed. Promoting a reversal of the inevitable was never my goal. I simply want to understand what is happening. Thanks for popping in! Your comments are always welcome even though we may agree to disagree!

  2. Hugh. I can not like this very much. Not. At. All. You may be correct. If you are….civility stands no chance at all in the immediate future. It saddens me into despondency that all the hard fought battles were and are for naught. We have designed our own “teapot” if you will, and are becoming masters of our own nihilistic and barbaric tempests. Shame on us. Every one.

    Historical cycles, if precedent holds, will bring the civil temper back, full circle. I’m of an age, however, that I won’t behold that event, and certainly don’t relish living the rest of my days in lowest ebb of humanity. Perseverance for a kinder, gentler existence is now my only strong hold. Passing it along whenever and wherever.

    As usual, thanks for keeping my candle in the window burning….

    • There are pockets of resistance, including my alma mater in Annapolis and Santa Fe as well as a number of other small, liberal arts schools. But the handwriting is on the wall. What people want is “stuff,” and the humanities are regarded, by and large, as irrelevant and pointless. See my reply to Eric’s comment above!

    • I’m not sure they are suppressed. But they are certainly being replaced by a commodified culture that centers around what people want, not what they need.

  3. With screaming children in the background, I write (hurriedly) to thank you for this, which pairs well with my post — which illustrates your point. I remain baffled how the public can ignore a true maestro (Ivo Uquillas) and no one shows up for the opening show… I wondered last Friday night as we awaited the public to arrive, ‘Are they at home watching a trendy program on television?”

    Battery almost dead – those hamsters are getting lazy!

  4. Prof. Curtler,

    You wrote, “Writers crave readers”. So I thought you might like to know that I read a few of your latest posts (tagged Descartes and Dostoevsky). This post in particular struck a cord, and prompted me to write a post ,Never Labor In Vain, in response.


  5. Again, good post but I cannot share your conclusion, for I still believe in that old maxim that as long as there is life, there is hope. Granted, today it looks bleak, but … I still hold onto the fact that I think there’s hope for change. It may … likely will … take some cataclysmic event to drive that change, but … I cannot give up hope, else why would I even bother getting out of bed in the mornings?

    • I don’t address the future of humankind here. There IS hope — a glimmer, perhaps — but I despair over the wrecked condition of humanism which, despite its flaws, brought with it much good.

      • Those who are without compassion, without humanity, do seem to be gaining in numbers … sigh. And they call those of us who still have a heart in the right place, ‘elitist’. Funny how the meanings of words change over time, isn’t it?

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