Here is an interesting article on what ails the humanities. The claim is that humanities professors have inflicted a lot of damage on themselves. The piece is rather optimistic about the public attitude toward humanities, one person remarking that “I don’t think our civilization is so degraded that we have to defend giving attention to what is excellent.” The problem, rather, is two-fold. The first problem is related to overspecialization and the popularity of various approaches (deconstruction, postmodernity, anti-colonialism, feminism, marxism) in the academy. One fellow in the article noted that “What matters to the public is Shakespeare, not the ‘logic of theatrical representation.’” Ordinary people recognize that Shakespeare is a value. We are not so lost that we have to argue that great things deserve attention. The problem is that humanities faculties too rarely teach the great things, and when they do it is without proper respect (they are busy just “deconstructing” them). If that is your college exposure to Shakespeare, you are going to either not take university faculty seriously, not take Shakespeare seriously, or perhaps both.
Related to this is the failure of humanities professors to speak in a way that could inform a regular citizen in the public square. It is this “neglect or inability or lack of desire . . . to speak directly to the public in a public language” that then makes people think the humanities are worthless. That humanities colleges routinely over-state their worth (‘you can’t be a feeling and good person unless you have read such and such a work of literature’) doesn’t help the matter.
I think it is a pretty compelling article, even if I am sometimes more cynical about the public appreciation of and desire for great works even when they are properly respected in the classroom. But the piece got me to thinking about how the humanities “brand” themselves. This has been the topic of some discussion of late here at Utah State. Increasingly, the humanities brand themselves in terms of skill sets, and the favorite skills to which we lay claim are “critical thinking skills.” But what is critical thinking? When I hear people casually drop the term to explain what they teach, I am not entirely sure I know what they mean by that buzzword. If I were to define critical thinking, I think I would say something like ‘the ability to evaluate and analyze thought with the aim of making the thought clearer or more accurate or more penetrating.’ But, when I hear some in the humanities talk about it, or when I Iook at what many humanities professors do in their classes, I fear that “critical thinking” sometimes just means “being open-minded” (whatever that actually means) and that “being open-minded” really just means being a skeptic. You are a critical thinker if you are skeptical of everything, since attaching yourself to a belief would be an indication that you do not have “an open mind.” “Critical thinkers” then, don’t attach themselves to anything. What gives me this sense? Usually when I talk to people about what critical thinking is, the word “truth” never comes up. And it is just this attitude that the supposed high ground of deconstruction will produce in students when they take humanities courses. And if that is as common as I think it is, no wonder people are then rather suspicious of the humanities.
When this occurs in a class, I think one of two things happens. Either (a) students ingest it whole hog and become nihilists. They become the sorts of people who are incapable of believing in anything, incapable of believing in anything great, and incapable of making sure and sound moral judgments (if they dare make moral judgments at all, they are probably situational about it and deny that there is anything intrinsically evil). Or (b) the students make the judgment that humanities profs are off the deep end and they decide that the humanities are a waste of time. Of the two, the latter looks to me to be the better option. I like Chesterton’s phrase: “An open mind, like an open mouth, does have a purpose: and that is to close it upon something solid. Otherwise it could end up like a city sewer, rejecting nothing.” For, as Chesterton also remarked, when you believe in nothing you will believe in anything.
So I say we should reframe what we are up to in the humanities. Since defining the humanities in terms of “content” is apparently too controversial, we will stick with defining the humanities in terms of “skills” acquired. But instead of focusing on developing “critical thinking”, let’s focus on cultivating intellectual virtue. Intellectual virtue allows you to make sensible and sound judgments about the good, the true, and the beautiful. Intellectual virtue means you are good at thinking, which is distinct from being good at not believing anything. Unlike the rather bare skill of “critical thinking” (at least as that buzzword is usually used), intellectual virtue is intimately bound up with truth (Aristotle’s intellectual virtues: wisdom, scientific knowledge, reason, prudence, and know-how are how we arrive at truth in different contexts).
This approach, I think, would better fit with what the culture at large wants from humanities departments. They want their young adults exposed to great ideas. They want them to be exposed to beautiful things. They want them to appropriate for themselves the great ideas and moral values that they passed on to them. They don’t want their kids to be nihilists. They want them to have intellectual virtue. That, to quote the article, is the “best attitude toward revival: respect for tradition and consideration of the public.”
So what I took from the article is not so much that humanities faculty should not or cannot make a case for the humanities, but that in order for them to do so effectively they have to stop navel gazing and must set aside their tribal ideologies. We need to look outward. It is a lot of the Menand / Simmons point – take the ideas out of the department and into the world. When we carry on about totally “academic” issues, it is not the least bit surprising that policymakers and ordinary citizens find little “real world” value in what we do.
In short, humanities departments will survive so long as they are actually providing the service that the mass of civilized citizens thinks they should be providing to culture. But we are so inward looking that we often forget what regular people think of literature. Looking outward, then, does two things. It humbles the humanities — no, we are not solitary civilization savers nor holders of esoteric political wisdom about various oppressions acquired on the hither side of deconstruction. And looking outward also demonstrates the genuine value of humanities — we do have something to do with creating thoughtful citizens and selves, and we do have an important role in exposing students to great things. Studying the humanities is not a silver bullet to peace on earth, but nor is it irrelevant to living a deep and rich life.
So we need evangelical generalists (I am going to put that title on my business cards), but we need them to teach great ideas in a way that connects them with the lives of businessman, nurses, moms and dads, etc. Sometimes the material needs to be changed, sometimes the approach to the material. My experience is that students, for any griping I might receive, actually like that they read the real deal – Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, etc. – in philosophy classes. I always felt the same way in my college classes. I was glad I read Chaucer and Shakespeare, etc in my English classes. It is when we try to argue that deconstructing Puerto Rican marxist novels is the real business of literature that we start to lose traction. Your ordinary Joe and Jane from Idaho Falls understandably think the class has little value when that is what they are exposed to. That said, they also don’t need some completely over the top argument that they will lead impoverished and pathetic lives if they have not read Augustine.
My experience is always that the proof is in the pudding. Teach great ideas and present them in a way that respects their greatness and connects them with the student. Make it applicable to them (for instance, I often connect my teaching of Aristotle’s Ethics to parenting and the formation of children). Without meaning to boast, this is effective. Students end the class saying what every humanities professor should want them to say, “I thought this class was going to be really dumb and pointless, but as it turns out it was one of my favorite classes and I got to think about a lot of things I had never thought about before.”