The long, slow crisis of the humanities

. . . When God
answers it is not as God would answer if men could
make Him. He stands in the circle around the fire, takes
His turn, tells a story. It isn’t loud. No one
has to believe It.

(“Letter to Reeve from the lobby of the Grand Hyatt”)

lgreatbooksibraryBoth the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and now Harvard have issued reports finding decreases in the number of students choosing majors in the humanities. So now we have the sober discussions. The humanities professors suggest the problem isn’t really that people aren’t taking their classes–it’s that they get less pay, less status and less palatial digs than their colleagues in the sciences.

David Brooks, who makes his living by attracting an audience rather than by claiming a sinecure, speaks more to the point. He says people have turned away from the humanities because humanities professors are no longer very interesting. “The humanities turned from an inward to an outward focus,” he said. The focus is no longer on “truth, beauty, and goodness;” the emphasis is now on “race, class, and gender.” It takes a special sort of person to sign up for classes in political ideology taught by an English professor, and there don’t appear to be many such people.

I know that he’s right, in a general way, though I don’t know with much specificity what goes on in the hundreds of literature classes that are out there. I have hung around the profession of English teachers enough to know that there’s a ferocious sort of intellectualizing about literature, proof texting to support this or that theory, which is often quite political. Scholarly types are fond of the classifying and naming that lead to extensive jargon. They seem less comfortable with the language of communion, which I take to be the heartland of the greatest literature–Cervantes, Proust, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare.

Lee Siegel thinks it will be a good thing when literature is no longer taught at the universities. Literature, he points out, is a relatively new discipline at the college level:

Literature did not even become part of the university curriculum until the end of the 19th century. Before that, what came to be called the humanities consisted of learning Greek and Latin, while the Bible was studied in church as the necessary other half of a full education. No one ever thought of teaching novels, stories, poems or plays in a formal course of study. They were part of the leisure of everyday life.

It would be different if the study of literature really was used to cultivate “empathy, curiosity, aesthetic taste and moral refinement,” he says, but the reality is quite otherwise. The real work of modernist literature and the professors who teach it is moral subversion. Even worse, he suggests, is the widespread poor teaching that turns the sublime into toil and drudgery.

Great literature remains vital, but it does not need to be taught in a classroom. “Literature is too sacred to be taught. It needs only to be read,” he says. I think he’s moving in the right direction when he turns to the sacred:

The literary classics are a haven for that part of us that broods over mortal bewilderments, over suffering and death and fleeting happiness. They are a refuge for our secret self that wishes to contemplate the precious singularity of our physical world, that seeks out the expression of feelings too prismatic for rational articulation. They are places of quiet, useless stillness in a world that despises any activity that is not profitable or productive.

Rosanna Warren acknowledges that the humanities are alive and well in places other than universities, but warns nonetheless that if we do not support the humanities in the universities, we face another dark age:

Our civilization may now be so coarsened that we will eliminate the humanities from our schools, and we will train citizens only for technical skills which give them no sense of what they are living for, or why. But if that happens, the humanities will continue to flow elsewhere, into unofficial forums, and people will flow with them to satisfy their needs for song and story, for explanation, for the drama of seeking and making sense. The unofficial academy will become the real academy where the arts and philosophy and history survive. And where we try to remember what it is to be fully human. But in that case, we shall also have suffered a massive loss, and it remains a serious question whether a democratic society could survive such a collapse in values, and the quest for values. That quest, ever renewed, is the province of the humanities, and it is at risk.

I wish I believed that–that something so important was happening at the academy. But honestly, this strikes me as begging the question. The question, for me, is precisely what it means to be “fully human” and whether the ideas that have come to dominate universities are true enough that that their passing would indeed be a crisis–at least for anyone but the professors. R. V. Young argues that what the various theories that are prevalent in English departments today usually have in common is nihilism. The secular ideologies that have been ascendent throughout my life have no place for modes of being that, by my lights, are central to being fully human. Human beings, I think, in postmodern universities are too often lost in meaninglessness, trying to construct identities out of the flotsam of intellectualized fragmentation. What I’m not sure about is how deep and pervasive those ideas are in actual classrooms.

A couple of months ago, the Bowdoin Report was released by the National Association of Scholars. It tried to compose a picture of what is actually being taught in the humanities.

According to Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield’s assessment of the report, what is actually taught–at least at Bowdoin–is, as Brooks suggested, mostly political correctness:

Topical courses are featured in programs called “Studies,” such as Gender and Women’s Studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies (separate from the preceding), Environmental Studies, and Africana Studies, that were founded explicitly as political advocacy for their constituents. But also Asian Studies and Latin American Studies, with apparently neutral names, are now concerned mainly with repudiating Western colonialism—long after its demise one would think. The various Studies, but also regular departments, have stimulated other developments in the curriculum—the cross-listing of courses given by one department in another department and the new emphasis on interdisciplinary study. Both have the purpose of making specialty courses seem more general than they are, and both try to endow the idiosyncratic, parochial, even trivial subject-matter of topical courses with the universality of science. The report sums up the Bowdoin curriculum of equal courses as having a certain “flatness” and tending toward “entropy,” where faculty and students share the undemanding practice of self-expression, and the uninterest in teaching of the former joins with the uninterest in learning of the latter.

Political correctness, Mansfield suggests, “with its present-minded exactness, its not quite selfless objectivity, and its esoteric jargon is science for non-scientists.”

I went to the university on the G.I. Bill after Vietnam. I remember well the eros of learning, the hunger for insight that, I was sure, was in those great books. It was there, and what others loved I have loved, and they have taught me how. I would wish for young people today something of the communion that lay at the heart of my university education.

Such communion lies in the direction of the sacred. Northrop Frye characterized literature as “man’s revelation to man”–someone else described it as one person’s inside talking to another person’s inside. It has relatively little to do with the specialized jargon that has grown up around it at the universities–through precise words are useful if they don’t become the point and thus a distraction. To be fully human, as universities seem to understand it, is to be an intellect. Intellectualizing creates a distance that takes us out of the immanent. I hear much talk about critical thinking among English teachers–and while I’m all in favor of critical thinking, literature is about critical thinking in somewhat the way making love is about motor skills.

It’s possible to view and teach Priam’s speech to Achilles in his tent as an illustration of rhetorical technique. That’s quite different from knowing it as a moment of communion–between two souls but also between them both and an order coming into view in the cosmos, a formative power that is prior to and more fundamental than the gods. Priam in his sorrow has learned to see that order, and through the power of the word reveals that order to Achilles, who, thank heaven, is not a deconstructionist. Achilles stands with Priam before a right way to be. It follows that Achilles desires to bring his conduct into harmony with that right way, with things are they really are. Through literature, we can learn what they have learned. Is this what Rosanna Warren has in mind when she talks about learning to be fully human, which for my tribe is to be with others within the immanence of a divine order?

I suspect the university literature experience tends to feel right mainly for people who belong to the same tribe as the professors. How we construe things is something we learn. The Greeks somewhat reconstrued their cosmos in part through centuries of reading Homer, creating a context that made Socrates possible. It wasn’t long ago that many literature teachers viewed their work as part of that construal. Some still do. But for most, Darwin and Freud and Marx have had more influence–and the divine order has been replaced by a universe that has no meaning except what we construct. More recently, thinkers such as Derrida and Foucault have sowed skepticism about any real possibility of communion through the word.

I do think the postmodernists have seen something true about the cosmos, though as through a glass darkly. What we make of the world is shaped by the narrative environment in which our minds took form. The implications of this can lead us to real trouble–we can lose the ability to communicate and to form a world together. Our society can fragment into factions that neither see nor hear one another. James K. A. Smith explores this is some depth, from a Christian point of view, in Imagining the Kingdom.

If we are asked what to do about urban education, for example, a host of emotions drawn from the stories we have experienced will shape our opinion before we even get to thinking about it. We will understand the question, usually, as our tribe ‘s stories have contextualized it.

The situation as perceived already comes loaded (or not) with a call upon me. The call I feel in such a situation, even if it is experienced as “obvious,” can be radically different for someone who has had different affective “training.” So in the case of urban public schools, one person will immediately and “obviously” see the situation as calling for discipline—for policies that are meant to fight the laziness that characterizes the “culture of poverty” while exercising “stewardship” of public resources. Another person will “just see” the dynamics of disenfranchisement and the systemic oppression that generates such an oppression, feeling a call to take up the work of individual empowerment and systemic policy change. Any “facts” will already be seen in light of the affective background each brings to the situation.

Instead, we should say that we have a “feel” for the world that is informed by stories that dispose us to inhabit the world as either a bounteous but broken gift of the gracious Creator or a closed system of scarcity and competition; and as a result, either I will just “naturally” be disposed to see others as neighbors, as image-bearers of God, whose very faces call to me in a way that is transcendent, or I will have a “take” on others as competitors, threats, impositions on my autonomy.

That affective, emotional “background” is also part of the dispositions or tendencies that I bring to such a context. I’m not only primed to see the situation in a certain way, based on this emotional context; I’m also already inclined or disposed to act in a certain way—not as the result of a decision but as a sort of “natural” tendency given the inclinations that I’ve acquired, the habits that already prime me to “lean” in certain directions.

So generating good, just, virtuous action is not merely a matter of disseminating the relevant rules or principles; it is more fundamentally dependent upon training affect—training people to “see situations in the right way.” That, it turns out, requires training their emotions to be primed to take in and evaluate situations well. Our emotional perceptual apparatus (which I’m linking to “the imagination”) is significantly “trained” by narrative.

The crucial issue with teaching literature comes down to what the teachers make of literature. Whether or it matters to us whether literature remains in the schools will be strongly influenced by whether we think professors make of the world and of humans what we make of them. Also, we don’t really know the answer. The reports don’t have that sort of resolution.

The long, slow march of secular ideology through the humanities has coincided with my life of teaching and writing. The nation is more divided now than at any time in my life over fundamental questions. What is true, I think, is that how classrooms repeatedly construe literary texts will, for most students, become the meaning of literature. If, in classroom after classroom, literature is construed as expressions of one’s sex or race or social class or ethnic tribe, students might accurately be said to be on a quite different planet than students who learned in classrooms where literature is experienced as moments of communion between kindred souls amid shared creation.

Do I mean “on quite a different planet” literally or figuratively? No. I mean it holistically, the way I think Christ meant “this is my body.”

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