Oh, the Humanities!
They have seen the enemy, and it isn’t who you think.
May 16, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 33 • By MARK BAUERLEIN
Against the trend, speakers and attendees voiced nothing radical or subversive about the humanities, but pressed traditional justifications which Cardinal Newman and Matthew Arnold would endorse. Appiah charged the humanities with identifying the most excellent and refined creations amidst the vulgar swirl of contemporary society. Edward Hirsch of the Guggenheim Foundation praised the humanities for, contra postmodernism, maintaining “the concept of the human” and helping people “transcend the local.” Neil Rudenstine, ex-president of Harvard, contrasted “real thought, real concentrating,” which the humanities foster, to the “connectivity” and inability “to be alone” that characterize the lives of the young. The citations favored by panelists came not from multiculturalist writers and edgy theorists but from figures of High Culture: Cicero, Hobbes, Dostoyevsky, Wallace Stevens.
At day’s end, the symposium hadn’t secured a $10 million pledge for literary study, crafted a handbook for humanities lobbyists, or brought any politicians or CEOs into the discussion. It did, however, pinpoint the best attitude toward revival: respect for tradition and consideration of the public. The fashions and theories that have so exhilarated the professorate in the past simply disappeared.
For some 40 years, literature professors have toyed with the humanities in principle and practice, and they have dismembered its prior achievements, sometimes brilliantly but usually shortsightedly. The game could continue as long as the money kept coming. (The arguments of Allan Bloom, Roger Kimball, and others made no inroads on the orthodox humanities “critiques” at all.) The budget, though, has wounded it—fatally. The economics of the university have raised the stakes to actual survival, making provocative and radical positions look irresponsible. A new sobriety and realism have set in, and if more meetings repeat the tenor and content of the SAIS/CIC event, the humanities might regain some prestige and climb back to their proper, essential place in higher education.
Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory, is the author, most recently, of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30).