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.

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Militant Multiculturalism

I have held forth on a number of occasions (too many, some might say) about the battles going on in the Higher Education since at least the 1960s when the wheels started to fall off. The battles take many faces but occur under the umbrella term “postmodernism,” a new age that will replace the old. One of those faces is that of “multiculturalism,” which has become increasingly militant and focuses on an attack against Western Civilization — regarded as the source of all major problems now confronting the world. It began with an attack on the “establishment” in the 1960s and expanded to take in the whole of Western Civilization, especially during the Viet Nam war, because of  the West’s consistent pattern of aggression and exploitation in an attempt to bring other peoples to their knees and force them to yield up their treasure  — exacerbated  by the presumption of greatness on the part of Western Europe and America and Western art, literature, and philosophy, in particular.

It’s a movement that is well intended, to be sure, though it tends to dwell all too intently on the failures of the Western way of looking at the world. To be sure, there have been terrible mistakes, such as genocide, greed, slavery, pointless wars, and intolerance of other ways of looking the world. But in the tossing out process something precious is being glossed over and in the tizzy to replace the old with the new some important elements are being ignored or forgotten altogether.

Beaten down by this attack, for example, are the “Great Books” of Western Civilization which are now regarded as the villains in the drama, the source of the ideas that have made our culture rotten at the core — though one must wonder how many the zealots have bothered to read any of those books. Indeed, it is mainly dwindling numbers of old geezers such as myself who continue to spit into the wind while defenders of the New Age proudly display their ignorance and triumph in their new-won victories. Their goal is to “rid the world of colonial oppression,” to convert students to one way of thinking, toss out the old, and pave the way to a new and more open way of engaging the world in an effort at what its called “globalization.” And they are winning. Indeed, they may have already won.

One of the old geezers to have joined the battle in a rear-guard effort save the humanities — where these battles have been fought for the most part — is Anthony Kronman of Yale University who has written a book that describes the battles in some detail in an effort to save what remains and perhaps even to resuscitate the humanities as they lie dying in agony from self-inflicted wounds. His book, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges And Universities Have Given Up On the Meaning of Life, points out some of the many ironies of the attack on the tradition that is being replaced. To begin with, there is the fact that replacing our culture with another, presumably superior, culture would require a total immersion in that culture, which is not possible — even in theory — for American students who have spent their lives inculcating scraps from the very culture they hope to displace. Furthermore, the attack on Western Civilization draws on the categories and ideals of that very civilization which also provides the intellectual framework, such as it is, for that attack. And ironically those ideas and ideals are endemic to most, if not all, of the cultures that are regarded by the militants as superior to our own from whence they arose. As Kronman points out:

“The ideals of individual freedom and toleration; of democratic government; of respect for the rights of minorities and for human rights generally; a reliance on markets as a mechanism for the organization of economic life and the recognition of the need for markets to be regulated by a supervenient political authority; a reliance, in the political realm, on the methods of bureaucratic administration, with its formal functions and legal separation of office from officeholder; an acceptance of the truths of modern science and the ubiquitous employment of its technical products: all these provide, in many parts of the world, the existing foundations of political, social, and economic life, and where they do not, they are viewed as aspirational goals toward which everyone has the strongest moral and material reasons to strive.  . . . all of them, all of these distinctively modern ideas and institutions, are of Western origin. . . . The ideas and institutions of the West, liberated from the accidental limits of their historical beginnings, have become the common possession of humanity.”

Moreover, as Kronman points out,

“The idea of tolerance [which the militants champion] finds support in many traditions, especially religious ones. But only in the modern West did it become — fitfully, hesitantly, but with increasing clarity and determination– an axiom of political life.”

I have often noted that we seem to be throwing out the baby with the bath water, but those who would do the throwing couldn’t care less as they reach left and right for the latest Western evil to be tossed. However, while there are indeed many reasons to feel disdain for our past, even terrible, mistakes that we in the West have made, there are also so many things that are worth saving and preserving. To be sure, the universities should be open to new ideas and make the students aware of the many cultures around the world other than their own — all of which also have made mistakes, by the way. But at the same time they should seek to preserve the best of what we have all learned from our own past in order to pass those things along. Healthy criticism is a good thing along with honest appraisal and a weighing of pros and cons, but a hysterical rejection of all things Western in the name of “tolerance” is itself the most intolerant view one can possibly exhibit.