When former students ask me for a letter of recommendation for their college applications, many feel compelled to explain why they want to major in STEM instead of the humanities. They are asking their former English teacher, after all. Most will start with “I loved your class, but…” before describing their love for computers or ionic bonds. One student’s answer, however, made me see the situation in a new light. “I have a few friends going into the humanities,” she said. “But I don’t want to be an activist, so I’m going to major in biology.”
For all the debate about the current state of the university in general and the humanities in particular, here is what is trickling down to high school students: engineering majors become engineers, science majors become scientists, business majors become businesspeople, humanities majors become activists.
No doubt, activism can be laudable. Collectively combating injustice is nothing to sneer at. But my student didn’t mean to say “I don’t like justice, so I’m going to major in biology.” No, she must have been thinking of the recent high-profile activism on college campuses: the baseball bat-wielding mob at Evergreen College; the violent protestors at Middlebury College; the screaming children at Yale; and the riots at UC Berkeley.
Clearly, the activism today is not the activism of yesteryear, with its appeal to reason and the brotherhood of man. Current protest culture makes a trend of reducing nuanced arguments and complex problems to an easy us-vs.-them narrative and then vigilantly demonizing “them.” But how is this activism du jour associated with the humanities? If this student wasn’t one of the brightest I’ve ever known, I would think something was wrong with her. But something has gone wrong with the humanities. What one studies in some humanities departments must really be something else.
To put it plainly: the humanities shouldn’t be activist training grounds. And although they are political insofar as they cause one to think about justice and order, they don’t have to turn one Left. It is true, however, that a degree in English might make a career in chemical engineering unlikely, so we must ask: why study the humanities?
Many claim that the humanities are about developing critical thinking. But this answer is vague and unsatisfactory. My student wouldn’t say “I don’t want to be a critical thinker, so I’m going to study biology.” The problem is “critical thinking” is too often vaguely understood and poorly defined. As psychology professor Daniel T. Williamson shows “the processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought.” In other words, critical thinking “is not a skill” we learn in the abstract. We cannot learn to think critically about Hamlet then transfer that depth of thinking to business management, for example. Instead, we learn to think critically about a subject the more one acquires knowledge about that particular subject.
So, we ask again: why study the humanities? Clearly not just to think critically. We need to ask what is one learning to think critically about?
One might counter that the humanities give one a deeper knowledge of language, as we spend most of our studies reading and writing at a high level. But gaining power of language is not an entirely sufficient reason for studying the humanities, for content knowledge then becomes irrelevant. Any topic is open for inquiry as long as it increases one’s language skills. The humanities then become frivolous as some colleges offer entire courses on selfies and Game of Thrones.
The trend of eschewing content knowledge for skills is best captured by Gerald Graff, co-author of They Say/I Say, a text often required for first-year college students. He writes, “If a student cannot get interested in Mill’s On Liberty but will read Sports Illustrated or Vogue or the hip hop magazine Source with absorption, there is a strong argument for assigning the magazines over the classic. It’s a good bet that if students get hooked on reading and writing by doing term papers on Source, they will eventually get to On Liberty.” Perhaps Graff and I differ on what makes a good bet, but I have never heard of a student finding interest in John Stuart Mill after reading about Meek Mill. But more to the point, one shouldn’t read J.S. Mill simply as an arbitrary text on which to write a paper, as Graff implies. Mill is important and should be taught so that students know something about the history of Western thought. Under Graff’s model, most students enter college interested in sports and ignorant of Socrates and they leave just the same.
And again we ask: why study the humanities? Certainly it isn’t to think critically about LeBron James.
Graff is wrong. A successful university shouldn’t cater to its students’ interests. Instead, it should cultivate an interest in the right things. If what we call academic is going to be true to its name, it must be directed towards what Plato pointed his students: the good.
Indeed, Graff leaves us with the problem posed by Plato in the dialogue Gorgias. Socrates asks the great orator Gorgias the goal of his craft. Anticipating educators like Graff who view language skills as ends in themselves, Gorgias replies that the goal of oratory is to persuade. But how is this so, Socrates wonders. A doctor will surely be more persuasive about medicine, and a lawyer about the law. On what topic should an orator persuade the public, if he is not going to mislead them? Gorgias and his student Polus never provide a sufficient answer, but Socrates concludes that an orator should be “wholly concentrated on bringing righteousness and moderation and every other virtue to birth in the souls of his fellow-citizens, and on removing their opposites, unrighteousness and excess and vice.” This means, of course, that students must learn virtue before they learn oratory. Try telling that to college freshman.
In the footsteps laid by Gorgias and trod by Graff, the humanities currently lack a telos. Why think critically? Why master language? Socrates’ suggestion that oratory lead to virtuous living requires us not to think for thinking’s sake, but to think about humanity itself. What is our fundamental nature? How and where do we find meaning? What is our relationship to the natural world and to the divine? How do we build well-ordered and just societies? The last is certainly a political question, but it doesn’t lend itself to partisan politics.
Indeed, the humanities have no necessary correlation to one’s political orientation. They don’t have to—although they might—push one Left. I do think about politics a good deal, but studying the humanities has challenged my own ideas about justice, order, and freedom for me to know that neither Left nor Right has a monopoly on moral arguments or effective policy.
So, why study the humanities? The answer begins to come into focus.
They direct our thinking to something greater than our immediate interests or politics. With a true education in the humanities, we begin to see contemporary politics in the light of eternal truths.
Universities once accomplished this great reorientation of one’s thinking with the Western canon, starting with the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions. In the 1980s, Alan Bloom prophesied against universities’ betrayal of the classics: “The ages of great spiritual fertility are rare and provide nourishment for other less fertile ones. What would be a disaster would be to lose the inspiration of those ages and have nothing to replace it with.” We have clearly lost the inspiration of those more fertile times. More than that, many are becoming hostile to them, dismissing the bulk of those inspired ages as the work of “dead white men.”
I can understand the trope. I imagine a woman of color taking an introduction to the humanities class. She is assigned to read Homer, Sophocles, Dante, and Shakespeare, all white men. But wasn’t it white men who enslaved her ancestors, segregated and red lined her grandparents, and now harass and kill her brothers as long as they wear a badge. Shouldn’t she ask that her curriculum “reflect her humanity”?
But the classics do reflect her humanity, for they grapple with truths deeper than the specific experiences of one’s race, history, or culture. We all yearn for truth and transcendence, and we attain them through language. Here is our reason for mastering language. When God told Adam to name the animals, he gave us the power to participate in the created order and to partake of his divinity. This power belongs to all of us, and we share in its fullness when we read the classics. As Northrop Frye explains “we can’t speak or think or comprehend even our own experience except within the limit of our own power over words, and those limits have been established for us by our great writers.”
Milton and Tolstoy belong to all of us. They belong especially to anyone who writes literature, for the canon is a continuous conversation with the forms and ideas of the past. So they belong to all of us as do Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. To even appreciate minority writers, and we should, we have to read a lot of dead white men.
Bloom’s anxieties about the canon proved correct: removing the classics as required reading has not been without its consequences. In Robert Kennedy’s speech informing a crowd of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., he quoted Aeschylus from memory to provide perspective and comfort: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
In President Donald Trump’s speech after a thug from a racist mob fatally drove his car into a crowd of counter protestors in Charlottesville, he said, the “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, on many sides [has] been going on for a long time in our country […] when I watch Charlottesville, to me it’s very, very sad.” Trump’s powerlessness over his words, his insensitivity to the victims of violence, his equivocation on the nature of evil reveal the extent of our cultural and political rot.
Furthermore, Bloom lamented the loss of Western classics in our universities as a required reading for all students, not just those in the humanities. To study the humanities is to explore nothing less than the meaning of life itself, which leads to a greater understanding of virtue and justice. This cannot be the privileged knowledge of those who “don’t like math,” but should be the lifeblood of the university. All students should receive a thorough introduction to the humanities, for we want engineers to be virtuous and just engineers, businesspeople to be virtuous and just businesspeople, scientists to be virtuous and just scientists, activists to be virtuous and just activists.
And what of our humanities majors?
If a student wants to major in a particular field of the humanities, she should do so in order to take up the mantle of passing on the tradition. Sure, she might be able to find other work, putting her mastery of language to good use outside academia, but I can’t imagine a more noble profession than the teaching of literature, the goal of which “is not simply the admiration of literature; it’s something more like the transfer of imaginative energy from literature to student,” according to Northrop Frye. He later describes the imaginate energy as a force of personal and societal renewal. It allows us to live within the overlap of what is and what could be. We gain a creative distance from contemporary neuroses, where we can more objectively assess our reality and imagine a path forward. With this imaginative energy, one is free from the corrosiveness of cliches, which push us “further and further…from any kind of reality” and towards “a mob, where we can all say the same thing without having to think about it, because everybody is all alike except people that we can hate or persecute.”
The imaginative energy is our defense against our tendency to drift to the mob. We urgently need it, for “every time we use words, we’re either fighting against this tendency or giving in to it. When we fight against it, we’re taking the side of genuine and permanent human civilization.”
So, why study the humanities?
Because we have to.
S.A. Dance’s writing has previously appeared in The Federalist, Quillette, and Christ and Pop Culture.