The Humanities Make Life Bearable

Walt Whitman counseled each of us to “dismiss whatever insults your soul.” My fervent hope is that the new Commission on the Humanities and Social Science report—a project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences that was “commissioned” or “requested” by a quartet of DC pols—will be dismissed accordingly.

The report fails to say anything of significance about the inexpressible joy that a traditional liberal education can ignite, the sense of belonging to the worldwide communion of persons living and dead who can/could think and ponder, the wonderment of consciousness that poets and sages of all epochs have celebrated. The report dwells instead, in a very American way, on the practical applications of a thorough grounding in the humanities and/or the social sciences.

Religion has a stake in this discussion. Religion is about the higher consciousness, after all. Second-century theological heavyweight St. Irenaeus is at least alleged to have said that God’s glory is the fully alive human being (there is a dispute about the translation). Rudimentary human consciousness makes us aware of our finitude; more advanced consciousness, usually the outcome of higher learning, makes the idea of that finitude bearable, even sublime.

The seriously religious are invested in mental development. As, for example, Mr. John Milton:

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of Hell, a hell of Heaven.


Some background on the misbegotten report. The American Academy, founded in 1790 by a Who’s Who of the generation that made the American Revolution, is a highly prestigious honorary society that experienced unusual turmoil earlier this month when it was alleged that its current president, Leslie Berlowitz, falsely claims to hold a Ph.D. from New York University. Berlowitz, whose $600,000 salary had already raised eyebrows, has stepped down while the matter is being investigated. This, in turn, meant that Duke University president Dick Brodhead had to field all media queries about the report. Brodhead co-chairs the Academy-created Commission, along with former Exelon Corp. CEO John Rowe.

If you think the Berlowitz flap and the odd pairing of a literary scholar (Brodhead) and a fat-cat corporate type (Rowe) signal possible deeper troubles with the Commission itself, you would be right. The Commission members are indeed an oddly assorted bunch of people with marquee names whom you cannot imagine actually getting together to do any serious thinking. In addition to Rowe, the corporate members include the chief executives of Boeing and Adobe, some bigshot lawyers, the boss at TIAA-CREF, and retired Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, who is said to have pushed for the “more competitiveness” theme that thrums through the entire document.

Other members include the presidents of Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, Penn, Stanford, Amherst, Notre Dame, and GW; some distinguished professors; a couple of museum and library chiefs; the heads of other learned societies; retired politicians; and a smattering of arts and entertainment figures: Yo-Yo Ma, John Lithgow, Emmylou Harris, George Lucas, and Ken Burns.

David Brooks is the only journalist listed, and he referenced the Commission’s report in a godawful column in which he asserts that multiculturalism is what really killed the humanities: “Liberal arts professors grew more moralistic when talking abut politics but more tentative about private morality because they didn’t want to offend anybody.” Etc.


Actually, my dears, what is killing the humanities is precisely the empire-in-decline anxiety that drives this report: the sense that Chinese college grads these days might actually know their Moliere and their Montesquieu better than our grads do. Recall that the report was specifically requested by politicians who thought that the enormous recent emphasis on STEM for America’s future competitiveness needed to be balanced out just a bit.

Anxiety overwrites every page. From the prologue to the report: “At the very moment when China and some European nations are seeking to replicate our model of broad education in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences—as a stimulus to innovation and a source of social cohesion—we are instead narrowing our focus and abandoning our sense of what education has been and should continue to be—our sense of what makes America great.”

It goes on from there. All three major Commission recommendations are about competing successfully: (1) educate Americans to thrive in a 21st-century democracy; (2) foster a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong; (3) equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world.

I am as concerned as anyone about the fact that fewer than one in four of today’s American high school grads are deemed proficient in reading, writing, and civics. And I am horrified by the the sharp drop in the number of undergraduates majoring in humanities and the brutal paring of humanities faculties even at liberal arts schools.

But God help us if we think the only way to save humanities education is to corrupt it utterly by stressing the cash value—or the national security value—of brushing up our Shakespeare.

It is obvious to all that one big reason fewer undergrads take humanities classes is that they have been told time and time again that STEM is where the money is: that music majors will find themselves waiting tables while English majors wash the cars of the engineering grads. Do we suppose that students who have absorbed this message from their middle school days will now boldly return to Comp Lit because a high-powered commission has proclaimed that the analytic and adaptive skills they might thereby acquire will actually serve them better in the real world? Or because America could fall to third-rate status if we continue to be a people who don’t know much about history? Or because, per Verlyn Klinkenborg, there’s a special kick to be had in writing clearly?

And did it occur to the authors of this report that there might be a tiny problem with the way colleges and universities increasingly mirror the corruption of the corporate world, with growing numbers of senior administrators pulling down fat salaries while academic proletarians actually do the undergraduate teaching in humanities departments? Did it occur to them that there might be a problem with the way even some elite colleges now show their contempt for humanities instruction by relegating it to MOOCs? Or with the way students are effectively forced to take what amounts to high-end vocational training for fear that they will otherwise have no hope of repaying the massive debt loads so many now carry?

The biggest problem, of course, is a profound confusion about means and ends, a basic confusion that one might have hoped at least some members of the Commission would recognize. Liberal education is an end, and a precious one at that; it does not need to be a means to any other end, although it might well prove to be that. Being in possession of an enlightened and humane consciousness is the highest value, the highest “achievement,” that we humans can experience. It is the supreme source of our personal power and happiness. Whether or not having more of our citizens possessed of such enlightened consciousness will make us more competitive with the Chinese or the Germans ought to be, at best, a secondary or tertiary consideration.

We associate exultant affirmations like those I just made with certain 19th-century mandarins whom many now regard as overrated: people like Arnold, Ruskin, Pater, Goethe, Comte, Schiller, and Emerson. We should not. The roots of the view that the ends of life are joy and empathy are much, much older and are essentially religious. These roots relate to a sensibility that is arguably more feminine than masculine (if those terms even apply). And they may be found in all religious traditions, not just in Western Christianity.

It is certainly true that the founders of the great American colleges believed that liberal education would also yield practical advantages, both commercial and civic. Yet, as children of the Enlightenment, they also cherished the old ideal of classical humanism—an ideal they could trace all the way back to Protagorus’ notion that the human being is the measure of all things.

Now, as the Academy’s report makes distressingly clear, that old ideal is completely gone. These days, if something is not instrumental, it is simply not worth talking about. Even a well-furnished mind.

We must school ourselves to sigh with Cicero: O tempora! O mores!