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.