Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Intellectual triviality and sheer boredom

I received what was known as a "liberal arts" education. That meant that in addition to the courses in my major and minor I was required to take a series of survey courses designed to familiarize me with the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, including English literature, and the history and appreciation of music and art. No doubt the requirements were unforgivably Western and altogether too reliant on the insights and creations of "dead white males." In any event, even during my time in college, such requirements began to disappear or at least be modified so as to bear no real similarity to my experience.

Now, apparently, not only the requirement, but even the option, of studying many of those courses is disappearing on many campuses. John M. Ellis argues that those who are today trying to preserve the humanities on these campuses are doing so under a false flag. In the excerpts below, first how study of the humanities has traditionally been justified, and then a diagnosis of the problem.
...[E]xposure to the best of our civilization's achievements and thought gives us the trained minds of broadly educated people. We learn about ourselves by studying our history, and understanding how it has shaped us and the institutions we live by. As European civilization developed it produced a range of extraordinary thinkers who grappled memorably with questions that will always be with us, leaving a rich and varied legacy of outstanding thought on philosophical, ethical, religious, social and political matters. Its creative writers left a record of inspired reflection on human life and its challenges. Studying the humanities make us better prepared for civic life and for living itself, and better citizens.

And so "Defend the Humanities" is a most attractive flag to sail under. The trouble is that for those who are now using it, it is a flag of convenience only, and a deeply dishonest one. For the conception of the humanities set out above is despised by those who now ask for our help in saving the departments they run. Long ago, they took aim at it, defeated it and abolished it, and that is precisely the source of their present troubles. The story of how they did it and why is well-known. A virulent strain of Marxist radicalism took refuge in college humanities programs just as it was being abandoned in the real world because of catastrophic results world-wide. This created a mismatch of temperaments: humanistic scholars are naturally animated by a profound respect for the legacy of our past, but all the instincts of political radicals go in the opposite direction. Their natural instinct is to denigrate the past in order to make the case for the sweeping social change that they want. That's why they don't look at the past and see accumulated knowledge and wisdom, but instead only a story of bigotry, inequality and racial and sexual prejudice that needs to be swept aside. Political radicals are interested in the utopian future and in their present-day attempts to achieve it, not the cultural past which must be overcome to get to where they want to be.

Accordingly, they set out to dismantle the humanities curriculum that they saw as standing in the way of radical social change. Freshman core courses that gave an overview of the achievements of Western culture were soon abolished almost everywhere, mandatory courses in this nation's history and institutions went too, and literature departments even stopped requiring that Shakespeare be an essential part of the English literature major. Even when formerly mandatory courses are still offered as options, they are often presented through the lens of a jaundiced view of our cultural past that tends to discourage further study. ....

There was a time when "save the humanities" would have been an appropriate cry, but that was years ago, when they were being dismantled in one department after another and replaced with the intellectual triviality and sheer boredom of endlessly repetitive Marxist identity politics, as cowardly administrators looked on and did nothing. The poverty of intellectual content was masked by an elaborate jargon, but that only made things worse: the remade programs became the laughing stock of their campuses. But now the day of reckoning has arrived. Enrollments have collapsed, to the point where the smaller departments face extinction. Those enrollments are sinking not because students don't value the humanities, but because they do. .... [more]
'Defend the Humanities'--a Dishonest Slogan