Rachel Donadio, over at the Times Book Review, had an interesting little essay on the canon wars, Allan Bloom and the fate of the humanities. But what caught my eye was this melancholy paragraph:
All this reflects what the philosopher Martha Nussbaum today describes as a “loss of respect for the humanities as essential ingredients of democracy.” Nussbaum, who panned Bloom’s book in The New York Review in 1987, teaches at the University of Chicago, which like Columbia has retained a Western-based core curriculum requirement for undergraduates. But on some campuses, “the main area of conflict is trying to make sure that the humanities get adequate funding from the central administration,” Nussbaum wrote in an e-mail message, adding, “Our nation, like most nations of the world, is devaluing the humanities vis-à-vis science and technology, so constant vigilance is required lest these disciplines be cut.” Louis Menand, a Harvard English professor and New Yorker staff writer who serves on Harvard’s curriculum reform committee, concurs: “The big question for humanists is, How do we explain why what we do is important for people who aren’t humanists? That’s been tough, really tough.”
I agree with Nussbaum that the humanities have been devalued. To a certain extent, this is their own fault: post-modernism and its esoteric relatives are a rough fit with the real world. Most undergraduates will wisely pick Microeconomics 101 over Continental Philosophy.
But something important is lost when science majors stop reading Hamlet and To the Lighthouse. The loss isn’t merely that cocktail conversation will suffer. (There’s a Physics for Poets class, but why isn’t there a Poetry for Physicists class?) In general, I agree with Anthony Kronman:
In the past few weeks, tens of thousands of young men and women have begun their college careers. They have worked hard to get there. A letter of admission to one of the country’s selective colleges or universities has become the most sought-after prize in America.
The students who have won this prize are about to enter an academic environment richer than any they have known. They will find courses devoted to every question under the sun. But there is one question for which most of them will search their catalogs in vain: The question of the meaning of life, of what one should care about and why, of what living is for.
In a shift of historic importance, America’s colleges and universities have largely abandoned the idea that life’s most important question is an appropriate subject for the classroom. In doing so, they have betrayed their students by depriving them of the chance to explore it in an organized way, before they are caught up in their careers and preoccupied with the urgent business of living itself. This abandonment has also helped create a society in which deeper questions of values are left in the hands of those motivated by religious conviction – a disturbing and dangerous development.
Over the past century and a half, our top universities have embraced a research-driven ideal that has squeezed the question of life’s meaning from the college curriculum, limiting the range of questions teachers feel they have the right and authority to teach. And in the process it has badly weakened the humanities, the disciplines with the oldest and deepest connection to this question, leaving them directionless and vulnerable to being hijacked for political ends.
All true. And yet I think the biggest benefit of the humanities is that, when properly studied, they demonstrate that there is no answer to these lofty questions. For me, the real benefit of my undergraduate exposure to the canon of Dead White Males, from the Old Testament to Aristotle to Foucault, was realizing that nobody solved the big existential questions. Every answer was wrong, or at least woefully incomplete. There was something deeply humbling about realizing that the greatest minds in history couldn’t resolve the most basic mysteries. As Lily notes in To the Lighthouse, “the great revelation never comes.
But a proper study of the humanities doesn’t just deconstruct the myth of perfect truth. It also teaches us how to live with mystery. John Keats called this romantic impulse “negative capability.” He said that certain poets, like Shakespeare, had “the ability to remain in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Keats realized that just because something can’t be solved, or reduced into the laws of physics, doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Some mysteries will always persist, even in this age of science. That’s why we need the humanities.