Who cares about the humanities?
This is not the first crisis in American higher education, and I suspect it will not be the last. Toward the end of World War I, the iconoclastic ecnomist Thorstein Veblen suggested that a university was a comparatively simple institution consisting of a faculty capable of teaching, students capable of learning and a library. For those of us who walk through the groves of academe today, Veblen's ironic description seems, if anything, idealistic. The ground we walk on is seedy and ill-kempt. The case against us does not even have to be proved; it simply has to be stated. Let others question; we judge. And our present judgment on the system we have helped create is that it is a failure.
Among the recent indictments of American higher education is To Reclaim a Legacy, a report by William J. Bennett, chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities and rumored to be the next Secretary of Education. Bennett addresses himself to the dreary state of education in the humanities. For anyone who thinks of the humanities, as do Bennett and I, as the cornerstone of intellectual life in the Western world, the report should be welcome. It should also be viewed with deep and abiding suspicion--not because there is much in it that justifiably make sus uncomfortable but because there is too much that is left unsaid.
To some extent the seeming irrelevance of the humanities to American society is a consequence of the left's inability to make distinctions. Because we tend to see all cultural expression as a manifestation of political ideology, ideology itself has ceased to serve any definable purpose, except as a leveler of distinctions. As a result, cultural life is overwhelmed by nonsense. A little more than a decade ago Bob Dylan was being hailed as the nation's pre-eminent poet; Charles Reich, a professor of law at Yale University, wrote a book, The Greening of America, suggesting that all our problems could be solved if we ate organic peanut butter and learned to play basketball in jearns; literary criticism, which had given us the historical incisiveness of Edmund Wilson and the elegant textual analyses of the New Critics, was taken over by academic drones who called themselves Structuralists and then called themselves Deconstructionists and whose chief claim to fame was that they could make literature as dull as single-wing football.
Bennett is correct to point out that the main problem with education in the humanities is that it has been presented as a kind of spiritual potpourri to be gulped down by any potential customer who happens to get in line. Students, we professors told ourselves, were too busy or too free or too modern or simply too tired to read Chaucer and Shakespeare. In any case, Chaucer and Shakespeare were not necessarily what they should be reading. Cultural relativism was in; the traditional literary canon was out. At the vast majority of American colleges and universities, the traditional yearlong survey course in English literature was abandoned in the late 1960s because it was considered an expression of cultural imperialism.
To Bennett's credit, he resists the temptation to go after the students who, beginning in the 1960s, demanded "relevance" when what they really wanted was sleep. Like Pogo, he insists that the enemy is "us," teachers of the humanities who have "given up on the great task of transmitting a culture" in favor of offering a curriculum that is "a selfservice cafeteria through which students pass without being nourished." Once we believed there was a body of common knowledge worth teaching and learning. Now we do not know what it is we are supposed to teach or why we are supposed to teach it. Bennett wishes to reverse the decline in the humanities and make their study the heart and soul of the college curriculum. As students were wont to say a few years ago, he knows "where he's coming from." Unfortunately, what he leaves out makes one suspect he knows where he is going, too.
Having myself managed to get through the 1960s and 1970s without being transformed into a disciple of the Great Communicator, I still share a great deal with Bennett. Like him, I believe in the centrality of humanistic education; like him, I associate such education primarily with Western thought and Western civilization; like him, too, I am unwilling to indict that civilization for everything from air pollution to the Sex Pistols. In fact, what most disturbs me about To Reclaim a Legacy is my belief that it should have been writeen by someone on the left. After all, the left once not only believed there was a common core to our intellectual heritage but wanted to spread that heritage. It was the left that favored education in the humanities for all; it was the left that wanted to make cultural life widely available. Unfortunately, we on the left no longer know what we want from cultural life, nor what we should demand from culture.
When those of us on the left called for cultural diversity, we questioned, justifiably at the time, the obeisance to Western culture that pervaded American colleges and universities. As a strategy for change, this was understandable; as cultural politics, it was disastrous. We found ourselves in the paradoxical position of denying that our disciplines had meaning, for we had dismissed, with a hyperbole that should make us blush, the essence of those disciplines. We approved of littering the curriculum with intellectual flotsam that should have enraged any teacher who still believed in the power of thought. Courses in the humanities became manifestations of race, of ethnicity, f regionalism or of class. And by allowing all values, all opinions, all feelings, all ideas--no matter how ridiculous or ill-conceived--to be considered equally, we made humanistic education a minor branch of what might be called "arts forliving." Thus, no life is complete without having heard Beethoven's Seventh; without having read Hemingway and Heller; without having laughed at Aristophanes and Woody Allen; without having learned to become what college brochures call "a more well-rounded person." By denying the worth of the tradition that hepled mold our lives, we allowed ourselves to be pushed to where we viewed creativity itself as questionable.
The left, which once wanted to make Shakespeare and Socrates, Tolstoy and Whitman, available to the people, has of late seemed content to deny that there is anything worth reading or thinking about. Admittedly, Western culture has contained some sorry specimens of humanity, but the existence of figures like Wagner, Pound, Celine or Lawrence should not cause us to ignore what Bennett, following Matthew Arnold, correctly speaks of as "the best that has been said, thought, written, and otherwise expressed about the human experience." Having led with our chins, we should not be surprised that conservatives such as Bennett are belting us.
Why, then, does Bennett make me nervous? Not, certainly, because he is ambitions. If he is named Secretary of Education, he will probably be the most literate of the Great Communicator's secondary communicators. Not because his personal canon of the best that has been though and written does not include the works of Kafka, Proust, Freud and Yeats but does include those of George Eliot and T.S. Eliot. And not because he overlooks the new audiences to which education in the humanities must appeal. (Indeed, the schools he singles out for having made a substantial effort to restore the centrality of the humanities include a municipal college in Brooklyn, a small Catholic college in Indiana and a two-year community college in Iowa, whereas "some of the least coherent curricula were those of nationally prestigious, highly selective institutions.")
Because he chooses those colleges as his examples, I find myself wondering whether To Reclaim a Legacy will not ultimately be used to attack the open university and democratic higher education. I do not believe that is necessarily Bennett's intention, but it would be easy to use his report for that purpose. One of its major weaknesses is its implication that learning in the humanities takes place in a political vacuum. The author apparently believes we should educate everyone who can be educated, but he carefully avoids--and avoids so cleverly that I cannot believe it is accidental--the question of the purpose for which students should be educated. His view of society ignores the politics of our time, although his list of consultants in the acknowledgments indicates he is very cognizant of academic politics. After all is said and done, are the humanities merely to be ancillary to the technological and vocational education of postindustrial man? Is what is required of students at the Brooklyn insitution he praises, a multi-ethnic college reflecting the complexities of urban life, idential to what should be required of students at Cal Tech? Any humanist worth his salt will remember that one of the problems that preoccupied Socrates was determining what questions should be asked. Bennett does not ask the right ones.
No, what makes me nervous about Bennett is his apparent unwillingness to see the decline of education in the humanities--what once was thought of as education for living--as part of a larger decline, a decline in what can only be called our nation's sense of reality. He writes about the best that has been thought and said while ignoring the fact that the Reagan Administration is probably the most hostile to art and intellect of any in this nation's history. And I am not speaking of budget allocations to the National Endowment for the Humanities or the National Endowment for the Arts. I am speaking of the elements of the good life.
The humanities do not exist in a vacuum. And meaningful education in the humanities takes for granted tht men and women can be moved by ideas and by the expression of ideas. Despite what Keats wrote, we know that beauty and truth and not interchangeable. But they do exist. The best that has been thought and written is supposed to enable us to separate truth from falsehood. Exactly how does one do that in a culture in which image and substance have absolutely no relationship to each other, a culture in which nonsense is praised as art, in which news is a part of the entertainment industry, in which writers parody themselves and are told how well they have written by critics parodying themselves, in which Andy Warhol is called an artist and Phyllis George is called a newswoman and Bonzo's co-star is not only the President but is also the Great Communicator? It is the appearance of the thing, not the thing itself, that counts.
Yes, the humanities are suffering from a lack of commitment and a desire to please everyone. But they are also suffering from a Federal government that does not consider any kind of education, much less education in the humanities, to be among its responsibilities. They are suffering from students whose grants have been cut to the bone and who use what money they have to take courses that will teach them something "practical." They are suffering from faculties that have, as Bennett notes, lost a good deal of their humanistic commitment but have also lost 20 percent of their purchasing power over the past decade.
With education, whether in the humanities or in mathematics, you get what you pay for. In a nation that has chosen image over substance, we should have no trouble understanding why the study of literature has been eclipsed by the study of something called communications. The humanities will continue to command a certain rhetorical respect, and students will continue to take courses in public speaking and computer science and food management. And in another decade or so, one of Bennett's successors will write another report calling for the restoration of the humanities to their position of centrality in education. A dismal prospect, admittedly. Still, if we have got what we paid for, we must expect to pay for what we have got.
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|Date:||Dec 29, 1984|
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