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.

Ignoring History

As Santayana famously said, “those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.” But I would add that those who ignore history will find themselves lost in an increasiomghly confusing world. For all we know many of them would vote for a megalomaniac demagogue for president! Can you imagine??!!

I have referred in the past to the excellent group in Washington, D.C. — The American Council of Trustees and Alumni — that is acting as a watchdog over American higher education, drawing attention to the fact that the colleges and universities in this country (including most of the so-called “prestige” colleges) are failing their students. One of their favorite topics is the astonishing ignorance of American college students, across the country, regarding the history of their own country.

As we know, high schools no longer require a civics course, which would attack the problem a bit. But many do not require history either and the colleges that used to fill in those gaps are increasingly inclined to simply teach what the students want to learn rather than what they ought to learn. Call this a lack of confidence on the part of college faculties who lack conviction about what it is students ought to know. Or call it simply a lack of courage. But whatever we call it, it demonstrates why there is such wide-spread ignorance on the part of an electorale that has elevated a moron (and, some have said, a sociopath) to the position of one of the major candidates for president of this country — though one must note the exception of the students at Harvard in the Republican Club who recently voted (for the first time in Harvard’s history) not to endorse the Republican candidate for president! However, I stand by my generalization: this exception proves the rule, as they say.

In a recent publication by the A.C.T.A. we read about the depth of ignorance of which I speak:

“In surveys commissioned by the ACTA less than 20% of respondents could identify — in a multiple-choice survey — the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation. Little more than half could identify the purpose of the Federalist Papers. Only 23% could pick James Madison as the Father of the Constitution.

“American colleges and universities are failing their students. . .only 18% [ of those institutions] require students to take even one course in U.S. history or government. . . .

“Despite the colleges’ purported commitment to the noble ambition of training graduates ‘to be responsible and active participants in civic life’ or ‘civic leaders for our society,’ American history has disappeared not only from the schools’ general education curricula, but also from the requirements for history majors.”

The report goes on at some length. But you get the idea. People from other countries who must take citizenship tests to become citizens in this country and earn the right to vote are asked to know more than those born in this country who are simply assumed to know enough to pull the right handle in political elections, or color in the correct box. It is appalling. But it certainly helps to explain why there are so many in this country who are prepared  to vote for Donald Trump and who hate Hillary Clinton because they have been told by those sitting on the political right that she is the devil incarnate. Without thinking they believe what they hear.

In a word, the failure of educators to take their responsibility seriously in helping students gain control of their own minds is at least partially responsible for the wide-spread ignorance in this country that has become gallingly apparent in recent months. But parents must also take responsibility for not demanding that the schools teach their kids what they need to know in order to become informed citizens of our democracy, and for insisting that their college-age kids avoid the Humanities and Arts (where they might learn to think). There’s plenty of blame to go around. But in the meantime, we are faced with a close presidential race when it ought to be a blowout!

Why The Arts?

In a recent article by Professor Arnold Weinstein of Brown University he addresses the question Why study the arts and humanities at a time like this?   I couldn’t have said it nearly as well myself.

Enthusiasm for the Humanities is much diminished in today’s educational institutions. Our data-driven culture bears much of the blame: The arts can no longer compete with the prestige and financial payoffs promised by studying the STEM fields — a curriculum integrating science, technology, engineering and mathematics. These are all worthy disciplines that offer precise information on practically everything. But, often and inadvertently, they distort our perceptions; they even shortchange us.

The regime of information may well sport its specific truths, but it is locked out of the associations — subjective but also moral and philosophical — that bathe all literature. A new technology like GPS provides us with the most efficient and direct route to a destination, but it presupposes we know where we are going. Finding an address is one thing; finding one’s way in life is another. Even our smartest computers or most brilliant statisticians are at a loss when it comes to mapping our psychic landscapes. . . .

. . .  The humanities interrogate us. They challenge our sense of who we are, even of who our brothers and sisters might be. When President Obama said of Trayvon Martin, “this could have been my son,” he was uttering a truth that goes beyond compassion and reaches toward recognition. “It could have been me” is the threshold for the vistas that literature and art make available to us.

Art not only brings us news from the “interior,” but it points to future knowledge. A humanistic education is not about memorizing poems or knowing when X wrote Y, and what Z had to say about it. It is, instead, about the human record that is available to us in libraries and museums and theaters and, yes, online. But that record lives and breathes; it is not calculable or teachable via numbers or bullet points. Instead, it requires something that we never fail to do before buying clothes: Trying the garment on.

Art and literature are tried on. Reading a book, seeing a painting or a play or a film: Such encounters are fueled by affect as well as intelligence. Much “fleshing out” happens here: We invest the art with our own feelings, but the art comes to live inside us, adding to our own repertoire. Art obliges us to “first-personalize” the world. Our commerce with art makes us fellow travelers: to other cultures, other values, other selves. Some may think this both narcissistic and naïve, but ask yourself: What other means of propulsion can yield such encounters?

This humanistic model is sloppy. It has no bottom line. It is not geared for maximum productivity. It will not increase your arsenal of facts or data. But it rivals with rockets when it comes to flight and the visions it enables. And it will help create denser and more generous lives, lives aware that others are not only other, but are real. In this regard, it adds depth and resonance to what I regard as the shadowy, impalpable world of numbers and data: empirical notations that have no interest nor purchase in interiority, in values; notations that offer the heart no foothold.

The world of information is more Gothic than its believers believe, because it is ghostly, silhouette-like, deprived of human sentience. If we actually believe that the project of education is to enrich our students’ lives, then I submit that the Humanities are on the right side of the aisle, whatever paychecks they do or do not deliver.

At a time when the price of a degree from elite institutions is well over six figures, fields such as literature and the arts may seem like a luxury item. But we may have it backwards. They are, to cite Hemingway’s title for his Paris memoir, “a moveable feast,” and they offer us a kind of reach into time and space that we can find nowhere else.

Clearly since this man is a Professor of Literature he has a not-so-hidden agenda. But some times it is necessary to put such considerations aside and just read and think about what the person says. We live at a time when the Humanities are under siege: the trend is away from the presumably esoteric involvement in the humanities and the arts to the more practical, down-to-earth quantifiable worlds of technology and business. Our kids need to find work after spending a small fortune on an education, to be sure. But finding work is far less important to the students than finding themselves, opening themselves up to the world around them and to other people, and embracing something that will reward them the rest of their lives. And it’s not as if they cannot do both — explore the arts and ideas of great minds while at the same time taking courses that will prepare them for the world of work after they graduate. Let’s not fall into the trap of bifurcation.

(The sound you hear is Professor Weinstein and me spitting into the wind!)

Corporate Intruders

Readers of this blog will attest that I have a high regard for the writings of Christopher Lasch. I do tend to refer to him a great deal because I am convinced that he saw deeper than most into the current malaise, the sickness that is at the heart of our culture and our society. But he is not always correct in his musings, despite the fact that I find myself agreeing with so much of what he says. Indeed, I would recommend any and all of his books to anyone who is seriously interested in seeing more clearly what is going on around them. But, as I say, he sometimes goes a bit too far. As an example, take the following passage from The Revolt of the Elites that deals with the corporate “takeover” of American universities:

“It is corporate control that has diverted resources from the humanities into military and technological research. fostered the obsession with quantification that has destroyed the social sciences, replaced English language with bureaucratic jargon, and created a top-heavy administrative apparatus whose educational vision begins and ends with the bottom line.”

I am not aware that corporations ever allowed monies to flow in the direction of the humanities. So it is not clear how they “diverted” it into military and technological research. But it is certainly the case that corporate monies have somehow found their way in that direction. In any event, I think Lasch makes an excellent point here. But he takes a step too far later in the same paragraph:

“One of the effects of corporate and bureaucratic control is to drive critical thinkers out of the social sciences and into the humanities where they can indulge in a taste for ‘theory’ without the rigorous discipline of empirical social observation. . . . Social criticism that addresses the real issues in higher education today — the university’s assimilation into the corporate order and the emergence of a knowledge  class whose ‘subversive’ activities do not seriously threaten any vested interest — would be a welcome addition to contemporary discourse. For obvious reasons, however, this kind of discourse is unlikely to get much encouragement either from the academic left or from its critics on the right.”

There’s a problem here: this sound a bit too much like conspiracy theory. In his book Lasch makes a good case that the left-leaning academics have become lost in the jungle of newspeak they have invented to discuss the finer points in culturally acceptable literature — without bothering to read any of the classics they reject out of hand because they smell of the stench of “dead, white, European males.” In a word, they are caught up in the unreal world of “metalanguages” and “texts” in order to allow them to detach themselves from the real world where good minds should be attending to real problems. I accept this much. I have always felt that academics generally shield themselves from the world in so many ways, indeed, that many of them have retreated into the ivory tower precisely to escape from reality which can at times create undue stress. And I also see the intrusion of the corporation into the academy in so many ways, and have seen first hand the trend away from any sort of course requirements in the academy that would result in real thought on the part of college graduates. But I fail to see how the corporations have somehow managed to “drive critical thinkers out of the social sciences and into the humanities.” How, precisely, is this supposed to have taken place? The implication is that the social sciences no longer have any critical thinkers and those in the humanities are wasting their time (and their students’ money) chasing academic butterflies while the world around them is falling apart. I suspect his claims are on solid ground, but Lasch does not argue for these claims here, which would make him vulnerable to the same sorts of criticism he levels against other academics — bearing in mind that he was one himself.

So while I find myself in agreement with so much of what Lasch says, I do find him giving vent to generalizations at times that almost certainly reflect the man’s own take on the world, which he may have grounds for but which he fails to share with his readers. I would love to know how we get from the truth that the corporations have intruded themselves into the academy to the claim that they have managed to shift “critical thinking” personnel from the social sciences to the humanities (by withholding funding perhaps??). And I resent the implication that none of us in the humanities have the critical acumen to deal with real problems in the real world, though I would be the first to admit that an increasing number of people in literature and philosophy seem to be chasing imaginary butterflies. Indeed, I would go so far as to question whether those in the social sciences, by and large, are now or ever were any more critical of what is going on in the “real” world than those in the humanities. After all, these people are all academics in the end — and that seems to be the reason they feel most at home dealing with academic problems.

But it is assuredly the case that the corporations play an inordinately large role in the academy, as they do in the “real” world. And this is to be deeply regretted and should receive the attention of all those who regard higher education as a matter of some importance to the preservation of what’s left of our culture and indeed to our way of life.

 

Finding Meaningful Employment

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, written by a graduate student in English at the University of Cincinnati bemoans the fact that there simply is no work out there for young doctoral students in the Humanities. The student’s name is Katharine Polak and she says, in part,

For instance, Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, wrote in the January/February 2010 issue of Academe that “the only thing the Ph.D. now reliably confers is the potential for lifetime poverty and underemployment.” Apparently, though my program is excellent, I will be among the snookered, vagabond English adjunct scholars milling around the countryside, doomed to a life of the vicissitudes of enrollment and discretionary spending. Or, more likely, I will pursue my second career choice: swamp hermit. I will scream my Lacanian analyses at unsuspecting families hiking through my territory. There will be some dignity in my bog.

This is not new, of course. The job market for young people coming out of graduate school in English, history and philosophy, especially, has been bleak for some time. When our university hired an adjunct professor in philosophy some time ago, the man had been selling men’s clothing for a living — after getting his PhD at a prestigious university. That was nearly forty years ago! And more recently, when we advertised a tenure-track position the applications came in the hundreds. It is depressing. And the young woman who writes this article is correct: the professors in the graduate schools need to be honest and open with the students and brace them for the tough road ahead. Further, graduate schools in the Humanities ought to consider limiting the number of students they admit in the first place, though one hesitates to discourage people who want to continue to learn — as long as they know what’s in store for them.

I spoke with a medical doctor recently whose daughter had just completed her PhD at Yale in Art History and had no idea whatever where she would go from there. He was astonished that people could work for 4 or 5 years (or more) at the graduate level getting a degree with no guarantee of work to follow –unlike those in his field who were pretty much guaranteed a job at the outset. But at the risk of sounding unsympathetic (which I am not), I would point out that the object in earning a degree — any degree — is not to get a job. It never was or never should have been. The idea is that we stay in school in order to continue to learn. The degree simply marks stages of intellectual growth along the way. If we get a job, that’s icing on the cake: it’s not the goal of getting the degree in the first place. There’s something to be said for dignifying the bog.

But I fully realize that this is pie-in-the sky idealism. The hard realities are that people need to work, and after spending eight+ years after high school earning a PhD, one really doesn’t want to spend the rest of his or her life working in Walmart (for starvation wages) or dignify the bog with “Lacanian analyses.” But reality also screams out that the on-line universities are gaining speed and, given the rising tuition costs, will make further inroads into enrolments at the college level like nothing we have seen so far. If we think things are bad now, imagine what it will be like when increasing numbers of students earn their degrees online and don’t need to be in contact with live college professors at all!

I have been engaged in an ongoing conversation with a fellow-blogger named Jennifer who is very much interested in this situation. There’s no doubt that online “education” is growing and expanding its reach — even in respectable schools like Harvard. And this situation will make it even more difficult for young PhDs to find meaningful work. But I proposed in a comment on Jennifer’s blog that some sort of compromise be worked out to control the monster that threatens to grow large and eradicate real, meaningful education. In this model, online instruction would be restricted to the lower levels of college and students would be required to attend classes on campus with live students and professors in their last two years, preferably in small classes or seminars. In addition, teaching assistants would still be employed in grading and responding to online questions at the lower levels. It is not ideal and the problems listed by the young woman in Cincinnati will continue to get worse. But it is an attempt to restore some sort of order into educational chaos that seems to be getting worse and which also threatens to make the future job market for PhDs in the Humanities even more bleak.