Wednesday, January 29, 2014

More on the Death of Humanities

Classicist Victor Davis Hanson demonstrates why humanities used to be a useful education and why it might not always be such now:
When the humanities failed to make the case that its students were trained to be exceptionally good writers, logical debaters, and well informed about the events, people, literature and issues of the past, then the liberal arts no longer were granted immunity from the general reckoning that the university now faces.
Hanson is a good writer, a logical debater, and well informed about the events, people, literature and issues of the past. That many in the humanities no longer are is a shame.

Hanson cites, as an example, how
esoteric university press publications, not undergraduate teaching and advocacy, came to define the successful humanities professor.
I have certainly contributed my share of esoteric university press publications--they have their place--but it has been short-sighted of universities to limit themselves to those publications and say that is all that counts. Academics need to be able to demonstrate that something in their study might prove of more general interest, importance, and sometimes even usefulness than merely to the handful of people who perseverate over the field.

Davis notes that:
The campus exemplar became the grandee who won the most time off from teaching, garnered the most grants, taught the fewest undergraduates, and wrote the most university press books that in turn were largely critical of the subject matter that ensured his university position in the first place.
His remark reminds me of an article written by the biblical scholar, Jon Levenson, twenty years ago that noted the same problem in biblical studies:
After secularism has impugned the worth of the Bible, and multiculturalism has begun to critique the cultural traditions at the base of which it stands, biblical scholars, including, I must stress, even the most antireligious among them, must face this paradoxical reality: the vitality of their rather untraditional discipline has historically depended upon the vitality of traditional religious communities, Jewish and Christian. Those whom [Wilfred Cantwell] Smith termed "liberals'—that is, the scholars who assiduously place the Bible in the ancient Near Eastern or Greco-Roman worlds—have depended for their livelihood upon those who not only rejoice that the Bible survived these worlds but who also insist that it deserved to survive because its message is trans-historical.
(Jon D. Levenson, "The Bible: Unexamined Commitments of Criticism," First Things 30 (February 1993):26.)
The same trend shows up in Mormon Studies too. Hanson has some trenchant commentary on that too:
If the humanities could have adopted a worse strategy to combat these larger economic and cultural trends over the last decade, it would be hard to see how. In short, the humanities have been exhausted by a half-century of therapeutic “studies” courses: Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies, Post-Colonial Studies, Environmental Studies, Chicano Studies, Women’s Studies, Black Studies, Asian Studies, Cultural Studies, and Gay Studies. Any contemporary topic that could not otherwise justify itself as literary, historical, philosophical, or cultural simply tacked on the suffix “studies” and thereby found its way into the curriculum.

These “studies” courses shared an emphasis on race, class, and gender oppression that in turn had three negative consequences. First, they turned the study of literature and history from tragedy to melodrama, from beauty and paradox into banal predictability, and thus lost an entire generation of students. Second, they created a climate of advocacy that permeated the entire university, as the great works and events of the past were distorted and enlisted in advancing contemporary political agendas. Finally, the university lost not just the students, but the public as well, which turned to other sources—filmmakers, civic organizations, non-academic authors, and popular culture—for humanistic study.
Hanson's piece is worth reading in its entirety, as is Jon Levenson's earlier piece in First Things.