The Magazine

Does Harvard Hate Humanities?

No, but it doesn’t understand them.

Jul 8, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 41 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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The report summarizes several theories that explain the weakening of student interest by reference to structural features of, and great impersonal forces at work in, social and political life. These include the perceived inability of the humanities to equip students to confront the stiff competition they face in the global economic environment; the absence of a strong literary and artistic tradition in American public life, which leaves the humanities with “no constructive public function”; the success of the natural sciences and social sciences, which make the knowledge yielded by the humanities look soft, relative, and evanescent; and the new digital world of rapid-fire information and communication, which dissipates the capacity for the “deep immersion” and “imaginative engagement” required for appreciation of literary, historical, religious, philosophical, and artistic works.

The report does not deny that these explanations have merit, but concludes that the way for Harvard to draw students back to the humanities is to do what the humanities for the most part already do at Harvard, but better.

The report gingerly recognizes that in recent years the humanities at Harvard appear in some respects to have lost their balance. They have devoted time and energy to “theory and culture wars” at the expense of undergraduate education. They have “possibly become too specialized, allowing the research culture of our faculty and graduate constituencies to dominate the general needs of the undergraduate.” They have emphasized “interdisciplinarity,” or combining skills and perspectives from a variety of disciplines, while neglecting the need to first acquire excellence in a single discipline. They have stressed the “contested nature of truth,” but have slighted their responsibility to provide an understanding of what is being contested by imparting a broad knowledge of the past. And they might have given too much weight to demonstrating how “culture serves power” and exposing “the ways domination and imperialism underwrite cultural production, and the ways the products of culture rehearse and even produce injustice,” when they should also explore the wisdom embodied in culture. 

Remarkably, the report even gives credence, however tentative, to the suspicion that the humanities at Harvard impose ideological conformity:

[T]hose of us committed to criticism as critique might recognize a kernel of truth in conservative fears about the left-leaning academy. Among the ways we sometimes alienate students from the Humanities is the impression they get that some ideas are unspeakable in our classroom.

And the report sensibly recommends that in class professors

admit and mark the fact that opinions and orientations shape our thinking; acknowledge the fact that intelligent people may disagree; and encourage real debate rather than the answers our undergraduates are smart enough to know we want to hear.

Welcome as this admonition is, it is incommensurate with the scope of the problem.

The “initiatives” contained in the report’s final section will do little to achieve what the committee calls “a collective ‘reboot’ of undergraduate teaching across the Arts and Humanities.” More resources for faculty and internships, more interdisciplinary study, more extracurricular activities, and more use of electronic platforms will not stem the flow of undergraduates to other disciplines.

To begin to restore the humanities to their place of honor, it is necessary to state the problem clearly. The problem is that the humanities today are not oriented toward preparing students for freedom; they do not furnish students’ minds with knowledge or sharpen their ability to think for themselves. As a result, the humanities rob students of an education and deprive the nation of leaders capable of fortifying their judgment with an appreciation of the past and by listening to and learning from others.

To restore the humanities, it is necessary to ensure that students acquire a common foundation in the history of the West and its literary, religious, philosophical, and artistic classics. These shaped our ideas and our institutions. Grappling with them refines our understanding of ourselves and our country.

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