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Fragments in the Ruins

Here’s a fantastic comment by a reader responding to my earlier post about why we need the humanities [1]. The reader sent it via e-mail, and asked to remain anonymous:

I’m a regular reader who’s been meaning for a while to chime in about your posts on the humanities. I’ve found them stimulating, but my thoughts are a little long for the com box so I’m trying an email.

I am a PhD student in Classics at a well-respected institution. I was an accidental Classics major, finding that I was so enamored with seeking out the origins and structures of Renaissance literature and Christian theology that I could stop to study those true delights of mine until I had become familiar with what came before.

I am also by disposition a romantic, and so have been for a long time trying to make sense of the intersection between academic passions for Classical literature and the kind of paean to the humanities offered by Bauerlein and many others. Here’s my take in a nutshell: it is certainly true that the great works of the humanities can open up new vistas and that submitting our studies to them is a good and salutary way to grow up. But I don’t think the great thing impeding this sort of education being taught in the our universities is murderous professors who want to make everything about power. It is, rather, the separation of the disciplines the professors teach from that kind of education.

What professors really do is an offspring of philology, the human science of comparative and textual study of the past. In that definition I follow a recent important book by James Turner called, Philology. Turner argues that almost all the modern disciplines in the humanities derive from the philological studies of the 16th c. and earlier (philosophy is the big exception, and linguistics a hybrid). What’s interesting in the book is to see how often a big gain in knowledge is the result of asking the wrong question–for instance, asking “What language was spoken in Eden?” resulted in people trying to derive families of languages that were descended from one prototype, which aided in the discovery of Proto-Indo-European.

But the question ‘what language was spoken in Eden” reflects a deep, perhaps even unreflective commitment to the Bible and the questions it raises about history. My impression on reading Turner’s book is that time and again, the work of the humanities is driven on by the loyalties, loves and desire to know that the researchers have at bedrock about the media and figures they are studying. So the disciplines don’t themselves promote that commitment so much as they are our response to it.

This is what is lacking in the contemporary academy: loyalties, loves. At least, ones that can be shared, non-individualistic ones. In my department every graduate student has a story about why they have pursued Classics, and in most cases it is one of three options: I was good at it; I am in love with Tibullus/Heraclitus/Greek military strategy/etc.; or because they have some conviction about the value of these things. But these accounts are seldom challenged or molded by the department in any particular way, because there is no common sense of what the point of the discipline’s endeavor is. Although there are a few opinions here and there among the faculty, largely everyone falls back on the general goodness of exploring knowledge and introducing students to material we enjoy and that gives us honest work to do.

That goes as far as most universities want their studies to impinge on the lives of students. But it is not sufficient to sustain an education of the soul of the sort that you would like to see in the university (and me too). That takes some conviction about what the path is, some willingness to name goals for emotional, moral, and spiritual education. That conviction could be either of what knowledge all people need to have to be free (e.g. Villanova’s honors program or St. John’s); or conviction of purpose for the university (as in Alasdair MacIntyre’s designs for a philosophy to take the rudder in God, Philosophy, and the University); or else conviction that the kind of education we want and the reasons we have to teach are in fact to be found in the sort of research the university currently promotes among its faculty (Mark Schwehn, Exiles from Eden is good on this). But right now it is not easy to see how any university can do better than offer a lone beacon or even a few lights among the faculty, because the disciplines seem to function, to some degree, on the scraps of meaning left to individuals even when the roots are gone.

As a final point, it is worth noting too that the reason for the loss of this common faith must be dealt with much more seriously than advocates for classical education have tended to do (in my experience). George Steiner’s In Bluebeard’s Castle has a brilliant meditation on the destructive effects of the sobering realization that the Holocaust’s architects had the sort of humanistic education we are here pining for. Really? Europe’s intellectuals said. This stuff can make us better? But if it cannot even prevent that, what good is it? How can we trust it again?

Since I am in the academy, I think I need to start from these sorts of questions. They are the ones that undercut the possibility of trusting that learning about our past is worthwhile from within the humanities themselves. The people who spend the most time in these studies, who are most driven concerning matters that affect these studies, and who are the de facto guardians of this material have no reason they can give their institutions or students to trust the great works of the past to shape their souls. That to me seems the deepest impediment to a resurrection of humanistic learning.

Thoughts? David White, I’m looking at you, brother.

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39 Comments To "Fragments in the Ruins"

#1 Comment By Steve Billingsley On March 19, 2015 @ 12:50 pm

I think that this points to a loss of faith, something which is generally true of Western civilization in general. If you don’t really believe that what you have is of real value, then you won’t pass it along to the next generation with passion and joy.

#2 Comment By Franklin Evans On March 19, 2015 @ 1:28 pm

Rod, this is the very best post ever on your blog that you didn’t write. 😉

It should be noted that Tolkien was a philologist. While his writing skills were important, of course, it was the depth of his knowledge and passion for his academic work that drove his creation.

Just a thought…

#3 Comment By Liam On March 19, 2015 @ 1:38 pm

The Divine Comedy was composed at the very threshold of the calamities of the 14th century. By that I don’t mean the Babylonian Captivity. I mean the Great Famine of 1315-17, mostly forgotten today, but it was the result of the end of the Medieval Warm Period and the beginning of the Little Ice Age: it didn’t affect Dante’s Italy directly, but it affected northern Europe terribly, and the advent of the Black Death of three decades later enveloped most of Europe.

I am curious: how was Dante’s Divine Comedy engaged during the convulsions that followed? Petrarch was in the generation that followed Dante’s and his life was marked by those convulsions.

[NFR: No time to answer this now — have to take the kids to math class — but nominalism came along and swept away Scholasticism, and with it the general worldview on which the Commedia was built. Erich Auerbach pointed out that only 40 years separates Dante from Petrarch, yet the world had shifted dramatically in that time. — RD]

#4 Comment By Jeremy Hickerson On March 19, 2015 @ 1:46 pm

I still think beauty needs no justification. Sure, the passion for an ideology has paid for and inspired a lot of art, but I think that’s just a coincidence.

There will always be artists who create art, writers who invent worlds, musicians who compose great works, because they are human and humans respond to and appreciate beauty.

#5 Comment By Christopher Landrum On March 19, 2015 @ 1:50 pm

The Academy is but a bureaucracy whose policy is to construct sandcastles. Goethe called the West’s attention to this in his “Theory of Colors” (1810:

We compare the Newtonian theory of colours to an old castle, which was at first constructed by its architect with youthful precipitation; it was, however, gradually enlarged and equipped by him according to the exigencies of time and circumstances, and moreover was still further fortified and secured in consequence of feuds and hostile demonstrations.

The same system was pursued by his successors and heirs: their increased wants within, the harassing vigilance of their opponents without, and various accidents compelled them in some places to build near, in others in connexion with the fabric, and thus to extend the original plan.

It became necessary to connect all these incongruous parts and additions by the strangest galleries, halls and passages. All damages, whether inflicted by the hand of the enemy or the power of time, were quickly made good. As occasion required, they deepened the moats, raised the walls, and took care there should be no lack of towers, battlements, and embrasures. This care and these exertions gave rise to a prejudice in favour of the great importance of the fortress, and still upheld that prejudice, although the arts of building and fortification were by this time very much advanced, and people had learnt to construct much better dwellings and defences in other cases. But the old castle was chiefly held in honour because it had never been taken, because it had repulsed so many assaults, had baffled so many hostile operations, and had always preserved its virgin renown. This renown, this influence lasts even now: it occurs to no one that the old castle is become uninhabitable. Its great duration, its costly construction, are still constantly spoken of. Pilgrims wend their way to it; hasty sketches of it are shown in all schools, and it is thus recommended to the reverence of susceptible youth. Meanwhile, the building itself is already abandoned; its only inmates are a few invalids, who in simple seriousness imagine that they are prepared for war.

(Thank you Walter Kaufmann for pointing this out in “Discovering the Mind” (1980).)

#6 Comment By Joe On March 19, 2015 @ 1:59 pm

I studied Classics and I currently teach Latin, so I definitely appreciate the reader’s comment. I disagree with the following: “But these accounts are seldom challenged or molded by the department in any particular way, because there is no common sense of what the point of the discipline’s endeavor is.”

To find a “point” for studying Classics, or any Humanities, is a losing strategy, I think. The “point” – if there is any – is that learning these things is worthwhile. Learning about them can make you think more deeply about the world around you, or put another way, make you a better human.

The great test of the Humanities, as I see it, is that it no longer has the authority it once did. We ought to take it for granted that everyone believes being a better human is a perfectly good reason for schools to exist. The problem is that in a world of limited resources, it is more efficient to learn to be a better human while learning computer programming, engineering, nursing, business, etc.

We, as Classics teachers, will fight the good fight and defend the great works till we breathe our last. But we will lose so long as schools have limited resources and are presented with tough choices. Learning for the sake of learning is beautiful, but it is expensive.

Final thought: Latin and Greek are easy targets, but I wonder about the long term future for subjects like History and English Lit. Once you take the “relevance” argument to its logical conclusion, what do we have left in the Humanities?

Thanks for such thoughtful posts, Rod and reader.

Joe

#7 Comment By ken On March 19, 2015 @ 2:17 pm

I agree with the sentiment, but I think the impediments to resurrecting a shared vision of what it means to be well-educated (let alone what it means to lead a good human life) will not be surmounted in my lifetime. Hyper-pluralism is too strong a centripetal force to make a new shared vision possible any time soon. Perhaps the best we can hope for is for individual professors to recognize the vital role the humanities can play in shaping young lives and try speaking to the real existential concerns of students rather than passing on the exoteric interests of contemporary academics. At a minimum a sense that the humanities matter could come of this, even if humanistic visions continue to vary wildly.

#8 Comment By grumpy realist On March 19, 2015 @ 3:06 pm

Joe–since when was learning for the sake of learning NOT expensive?

I think we’re all forgetting that universities were originally set up as a place for “gentlemen of good breeding”, i.e., those whose families had MONEY (or at least enough clout that they could bully the local moneylender into making large loans to them and very long repayment times.)

#9 Comment By Winston On March 19, 2015 @ 3:09 pm

You do not to think that deeply to wonder about the value of the humanities. You would be producing less rounded individuals if all you trained people was their vocations. Anyway with robots and technology marching towards towards stealing more jobs, the more rounded a person, the bigger potential they have.

[2]
Top Silicon Valley investor Keith Rabois: Software will replace doctors and lawyers

That means the role of humans as the most important factor of production is bound to diminish in the same way that the role of horses in agricultural production was first diminished and then eliminated by the introduction of tractors. The general theoretical proposition that the worker who loses his job in one industry will necessarily be able to find employment, possibly after appropriate retraining, in some other industry is as invalid as would be the assertion that horses who lost their jobs in transportation and agriculture could necessarily have been put to another economically productive use.
— Wassily Leontief ( Nobel laureate in economics), The Future Impact of Automation on Workers (1986).

[3]

The Robots Are Coming

[4]

A warning about the robot revolution from a great economist.

#10 Comment By Ken On March 19, 2015 @ 3:14 pm

nominalism came along and swept away Scholasticism, and with it the general worldview on which the Commedia was built. Erich Auerbach pointed out that only 40 years separates Dante from Petrarch, yet the world had shifted dramatically in that time

I assume you delve into this somewhat in your book. If not, can you recommend a book or an article? Thanks.

#11 Comment By Eamus Catuli On March 19, 2015 @ 4:31 pm

Rather than repeat [5], I would reply to a couple of specific items here. Disciplinarity is indeed also one of the obstacles to humanities education as “witnessing,” but it’s basically another name for scientization: all fields, even Classics, if they’re to qualify as legitimate university pursuits, are expected to conform to the model of Wissenschaft imported — along with Ph.D. requirements for professors — from German universities in the late 19th century. (In German, the humanities are called Geisteswissenschaften: “sciences of the spirit.”) Being a science or Wissenschaft means being a “discipline,” and disciplines, as the name suggests, are not about what you love, they’re about being disciplined. Again, there are wan little experiments here and there in breaching disciplinary boundaries, and many professors (including me) will happily venture into adjacent fields they’re not really trained for if allowed to do it, but basically there is no serious reform effort underway to rethink the discipline-driven structure of the modern university, which is central to its entire system of credentialing, incentives and rewards.

Second, I was intrigued to see certain highly reputed programs described as focusing on the “knowledge all people need to have to be free.” So I looked up Villanova’s, one of those the writer mentions. The honors program there is a menu of courses, presumably all with their own requirements, and culminating in a Senior Thesis, which is described in part as follows:

The Senior Thesis should be original in its conception and analysis. Originality … can be reflected in the questions posed, the synthesis formed, or the organization and presentation of data. Theses should be the result of serious research, original thinking, and a clear understanding of the issues surrounding a topic. Since in-depth, comprehensive studies are usually preferable to broad surveys, topics should be feasible in terms of the students’ competencies and the time available.

Students should possess some background knowledge and any essential methodological skills prior to embarking on the thesis. The final paper should place the specific topic in a broader scholarly context by exhibiting familiarity with other literature on the subject. Students involved in projects involving empirical research should develop a testable hypothesis, design and conduct a study to test it, and analyze the results in an appropriate manner.

…In the past, theses using Social Science methodology have ranged from 20 to 60 pages; those in the Humanities from 60 to 80 pages; and theses in the Natural/Mathematical Sciences typically have been 10 to 30 pages.

Data! Competencies! Methods! Hypotheses! Page counts! We click a link and further learn that “Fall Semester deadlines include, but are not limited to” a list of specific weeks by which various drafts must be submitted. Etc.

This long list of rules is what university people, in all innocence, see as a way of learning what’s needed “to be free”! 😀 You can’t make this stuff up.

Finally, on Exiles from Eden, a book I read in manuscript because I’m a friend and former student of the author’s: It’s beautifully written (and short), it’s a worthy lament about the modern fragmentation of knowledge and a defense of committed teaching, and it’s informed by the author’s pious Lutheranism with its admirable emphasis on one’s “calling.” But I recall feeling that in the end it had no answer to the problem at its core, which is that there just isn’t agreement within the university, let alone in society at large, about ultimate ends, as we daily see demonstrated on this blog. (If there’s agreement about anything, it’s that we should be technically adept in our fields, i.e. good “scientists.”) And you can’t manufacture a fundamental agreement that doesn’t exist just by pointing out that it would be helpful if it did.

#12 Comment By Jones On March 19, 2015 @ 4:51 pm

As someone who is studying a humanities subject at a the graduate level at a top university, I couldn’t agree more. There is no shared understanding of the purpose of the discipline. And all efforts to find it must fail, when they cannot connect with a broader social consensus about what the purpose of the social order itself is. In a sense, all humanists are now haunted by the background understanding that, when it comes to moral knowledge, they have nothing to teach. Even if we all have our individual understandings—I certainly do/did, and that’s why I got into the whole business—as a discipline, as a profession, nothing is holding us all together, except the mere form of a career. This is what people mean when they point to careerism or professionalization as the cause of the decline.

[NFR: What a great comment. If you could wave a magic wand and fix things, how would you do so? Secondly, I’m curious to know your views as a practicing Muslim re: what the purpose of studying the humanities in the West ought to be. Do you see Islam as being able to be integrated into that in a meaningful way? — RD]

In any discipline that abuts on normative inquiry, the lack of any background agreement about ultimate goals means there is no central aim. At best, there is a hollow liberalism – but that’s not a substantive ethical view. That is why you see wild, strange forms of moralism erupting; people are deducing as much ethical content as they can from the bare norms of liberalism—freedom, equality. They are using these concepts as substitutes for a substantive ethical vision that they can never really replace.

#13 Comment By Darth Thulhu On March 19, 2015 @ 5:21 pm

The contributor wrote:

it is worth noting too that the reason for the loss of this common faith […] the destructive effects of the sobering realization that the Holocaust’s architects had the sort of humanistic education we are here pining for

That is entirely appropriate. Confederate aristocrats were likewise huge fans of the full flower of the humanities and the racial “sciences”.

Philology and material science are each a practice of flensing things apart to extract value from them … and if there was one skill at which Nazis and Confederates truly excelled, it was flensing people apart for value extraction. Our humanities and our sciences had prepared them and given them the tools they would need.

I need to start from these sorts of questions. They are the ones that undercut the possibility of trusting that learning about our past is worthwhile from within the humanities themselves.

Most of the humanities are, as you say, philology. Therefore, most of the humanities embrace the same (unspoken) assumption as the material sciences: stripping things apart to compare and contrast and recombine the bits is Good … or, at the very least, it is What Needs to Be Done to Pursue an Enduring Career.

Beauty is not an admitted exception. Nor is Nature. Nor are People. Without external constraints, everything will be flensed.

The people who spend the most time in these studies […] have no reason they can give their institutions or students to trust the great works of the past to shape their souls

Because no such reason to trust such soulcraft exists. Soulcraft is much better pursued elsewhere, because the tools of flensing are best when given human constraints rather than being endlessly indulged in for profit and careerism.

Souls are not an admitted exception. If everything is to be flensed under a pitiless knife, so are they.

#14 Comment By Darth Thulhu On March 19, 2015 @ 5:32 pm

(Second attempt to dodge a Captcha implosion)

Joe wrote:

Learning for the sake of learning is beautiful, but it is expensive.

Only if you do it as part of a career (student pursuing a degree; academic pursuing a vocation). If you are a non-career self-motivated learner, the Internet costs very little aside from time. Even pay-to-play lecture series are penny-on-the-dollar expenses compared to university tuition. For the unethical, pirating such content is cheaper still.

Careerism, of course, is costly, and thus inevitably begs for cost-benefit analyses … especially as government tuition support collapses and college tuition costs soar. Barring a lush supply of government-supported career positions (museums, research field positions, schools to teach in, et cetera), the humanities are very far from a “maximally efficient” career path. Like any other artist barring the lucky-fame-lottery-winners, the price of pursuing a passion is the failure to pursue monetary gain with maximum efficiency.

Combine the two points above, and one sees the Scylla and Charybdis that the dedicated humanities student must sail between to actually pursue a career: get devoured alive by the nondischargable-debt monster, or get sucked into the whirlpool of pursuing it in one’s spare time without acquiring a professional credential.

And everyone who chooses to go the Whirlpool route makes the Whirlpool even bigger. The amount of expertise it takes to make one’s Education Credential stand out from the growing mass of part-time knowledge grows and grows and grows … pushing any would-be careerist more and more to the devouring debt monster to get a Credential that has any competitive market value at all.

#15 Comment By JimD On March 19, 2015 @ 5:49 pm

@Joe

Do you think the humanities (or any of the other disciplines) make people a better human if they don’t want to be that human? For me, these discussions of the humanities are driven by the preferences of a small group of people who happen to like that stuff. People who would read Dante even if they didn’t have to.

I’m not against forcing students to take classes they don’t like, sometimes it’s hard to tell what you like until you try it. But I think colleges do too much of it. I don’t think my discipline will make you a better person or save your soul but it might help you find a better job. Unless the humanities can show that they change lives in general, I think helping to get a job is a pretty good characteristic for a course.

#16 Comment By Mdc On March 19, 2015 @ 6:29 pm

One deeper problem may be the unexamined acceptance of the category “humanities”, especially in so far as these are taken as opposed to “sciences.” What is the ground of this distinction?

#17 Comment By Russell Berry On March 19, 2015 @ 6:33 pm

As always, a thoughtful piece by Mr. Dreher (with some help this time). But in light of your recent posts, I must express my horror at the fact that the quoted instructor feels forced to remain anonymous for fear of bringing the Academy down on top of him.

#18 Comment By Matthias On March 19, 2015 @ 6:41 pm

Humanities , in my limited exposure to college (I’m about to go off as a,junior at a four year institute) seems to suffer both the ‘what is the point’ angle and a seeming lack of willingness to work off the material alone.My literature classes wasted time on explaining psychological, Freudian, and political interpretations. I really could care less about sex in Voltaire, as much as why was his work important and what the circumstancesvwere that birthed it.Then My Art History class was a complete farce, with a professor so enamored in his afrocentrcism that he literally made the argument that ancient black Egyptians worshiped Christ during the reign of Akenaten,and that the western world was white washing black history, and that there was a black Roman emperor. Of course speaking my concerns to the department head lead to being told I was trying to cause disruptions, because I didn’t agree with his facts, and that he had a right to his opinions. *rolls eyes*

Ultimately only a few history classes ended up actually meeting my hunger to learn. I plan to get a MLS, with a Bachlor’s in history, because I dont trust the university system to actually teach me classical humanities. I’ve learned more on my own than I’ve ever in any of my humanities classes. It’s not if I’ve lost a love of it, I could spend hours in museums, or in books. But, it seems the raw beauty and truth is rarely the centerpiece of these courses, but more what can be harvested out of this material to support X, Y, or Z.

Perhaps I’m wrong, I really do hope it. But. From where I’m looking (which still is in nowwheresville), I’m just not seeing it. That’s why I’m looking forward to your Dante book, Rod. It’s not a course per say, but it certainly will give me something to stir the pot.

I’ve already ordered Musa’s translation, and have it waiting at my desk.

#19 Comment By Joe On March 19, 2015 @ 9:27 pm

Rod has posted in previous pieces the idea that the Humanities need to be defended not in terms of skills they can impart, but for their inherent beauty. That is to say, arguing for poetry because it makes good critical thinkers is a losing proposition. But arguing for poetry because poetry is beautiful might have a chance. I agree (again, as a Latin teacher, my heart is on the side of the poets).

But poets generally can’t pay their bills, and for the people who have the luxury to read poetry, their bills aren’t an issue. I know that’s harsh, but I worry we don’t consider the plight of poor and working class people whose only way out is a job. Taking a course on Dante won’t help them in that sense. Of course it could be life-changing, perhaps even earth-shattering; but let’s not kid ourselves, taking the engineering classes are a far better use of one’s limited resources. Add to that the stuff Rod has posted about how utterly uninteresting humanities professors can make their subjects, and you have a recipe for disaster!

All I can do is continue to teach Latin, not because it’s useful or relevant (though it can be both). I defend what I do to business types and other people (who are amazed that such a job exists) because I think that Latin is awesome, and that kids can really enjoy it. Will I have a job in 20 years? If schools continue to be viewed as employee training facilities, no way!

#20 Comment By Jones On March 19, 2015 @ 11:15 pm

[NFR: What a great comment. If you could wave a magic wand and fix things, how would you do so? Secondly, I’m curious to know your views as a practicing Muslim re: what the purpose of studying the humanities in the West ought to be. Do you see Islam as being able to be integrated into that in a meaningful way? — RD]

If I had a magic wand? Phew! That’s a tough question. I would love to give a really satisfying answer, but I’m going to have to start with a downer, which is that I think this kind of problem is endemic, at least to modern society. After all that’s the narrative that MacIntyre gives, isn’t it? This is not the first round we’re playing. For much of the modern era philosophers have been trying to come up with a coherent story about knowledge and values. Every such answer has fallen apart at some point or other, to be replaced by another attempt.

How do wars stop? Somebody wins. For my part, I try to convince my fellow academics that it would be better to simply line up behind an account rather than engage in endless internecine methodological disputes. The humanities field that has come closest to doing this is philosophy, mostly be exorcising the specter of “continental philosophy” which continues to haunt much of the rest of the humanities. But that comes with costs that are well known by anyone who has tangled with academic philosophy. I think history is probably in second place.

In my own reading of the biographies of the greats, the thinkers of the past I have admired my whole life, many of them were on the margins of the academy. The fit has never been that neat. Basically the hope is that genius will find a way. If it doesn’t find a home within the academy, it can, and often has, grown outside of it. I was recently reading about Einstein, for example – he failed all of his entrance exams except for the math and physics. He was in constant tension with his advisors, one of whom tried to warn him off of a science career altogether (because, the advisor claimed, he had no talent). Einstein failed to land a single academic job upon graduation because his other advisor wrote him such a terrible recommendation. Then he took up at the patent office, spent all his spare time working on physics, and changed the course of intellectual history.

I’m not sure any of this is responsive to your question. But I think part of my original comment is that the problems in the academy are reflective of larger social problems. If a professor cannot infer from the fact that a student has arrived at his university, that that student has any substantive ethical commitments in common with him or with any of the other students, then where is a moral education supposed to begin? You can’t literally start from scratch. (What would Aristotle think of that idea?)

Still, this might be overstating the problem. Here are the more practical things I would suggest. First, parents (and students) need to become less careerist. Or, the less careerist among them need to have the courage of their convictions. If a student has humanistic interests or inclinations, you should send them to a liberal arts college and let them study the humanities. This is important because I think a lot of social conservatives vilify the humanities educations currently on offer, incorrectly and unfairly. Therefore they risk withdrawing essential support from those institutions, which are carrying the flame. I think conservatives should not be too dissuaded from the ostentatious leftism. Yes, that stuff is there, but most of what’s really problematic is equally present at every major college. You need to trust in the moral formation you’ve given your children up to that point. Yes, my liberal arts college had strident queer activism . . . but it also had a year-long course on Dante by one of the most knowledgeable, accomplished, and widely admired teachers I’ve ever met. It’s where I read Plato’s Socratic dialogues with someone who had spent a lifetime studying them. It’s where I read Plato, Aristotle, Epictetus, Lucretius, Boethius, and a hundred other things. (I think people who think they can really be educated in these things on their own, in their spare time, are kidding themselves. Try cracking open the Thaetatus after a long day at the office.) Also, if social conservatives interested in humanism actually show up on these campuses, that will in itself change them. Remember, the customer is always right.

The next big problem is the sheer competition in the professoriate. A lot of people, like me, would take any room they got to enrich the aesthetic and moral qualities of their work, or to focus on the moral education of students. But there is no room to do so when every spare moment of your life is taken up just trying to stay on the ladder. I have no real answer to this. But I think the competition is a huge problem. Here’s a possible answer though: better opportunities outside the academy for those with these kinds of skills and interests; but that would have to be part of a broader cultural regeneration.

#21 Comment By Another Matt On March 19, 2015 @ 11:49 pm

This is an interesting thread that ties together a number of ideas implicitly. From the original post:

This is what is lacking in the contemporary academy: loyalties, loves. At least, ones that can be shared, non-individualistic ones. In my department every graduate student has a story about why they have pursued Classics, and in most cases it is one of three options: I was good at it; I am in love with Tibullus/Heraclitus/Greek military strategy/etc.; or because they have some conviction about the value of these things. But these accounts are seldom challenged or molded by the department in any particular way, because there is no common sense of what the point of the discipline’s endeavor is. Although there are a few opinions here and there among the faculty, largely everyone falls back on the general goodness of exploring knowledge and introducing students to material we enjoy and that gives us honest work to do.

In my case, I’m a composer because I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. If you want to hear a piece, search “Matt” and the title of the final poem in Harmonium in Spotify or Google. This reveals my identity but I’m OK with that for anyone who really wants to go listen. Anyway, the reason I quoted this comes up in Eamus Catuli’s response, which contained this from the Villanova website:

The Senior Thesis should be original in its conception and analysis. Originality … can be reflected in the questions posed, the synthesis formed, or the organization and presentation of data. Theses should be the result of serious research, original thinking, and a clear understanding of the issues surrounding a topic. Since in-depth, comprehensive studies are usually preferable to broad surveys, topics should be feasible in terms of the students’ competencies and the time available.

Students should possess some background knowledge and any essential methodological skills prior to embarking on the thesis. The final paper should place the specific topic in a broader scholarly context by exhibiting familiarity with other literature on the subject. Students involved in projects involving empirical research should develop a testable hypothesis, design and conduct a study to test it, and analyze the results in an appropriate manner.

One of the big reasons why our loyalties are fragmented are spelled out right there: the primary emphasis is on originality, and only secondary evidence is on placing the work in a broader scholarly context. Another word for this, broadly, is “specialization.” It can be good and bad. More territory is covered, but nobody can make a map because the terrain in a given field is so vast. “Publish or perish” is also about originality and specialization. It’s not enough to agree with Cleanth Brooks about some detail of As I Lay Dying — one has to come up with something New. It can be exhausting. Have you read Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis? It has an extremely funny take on all of this.

Finally, JimD says:

Do you think the humanities (or any of the other disciplines) make people a better human if they don’t want to be that human? For me, these discussions of the humanities are driven by the preferences of a small group of people who happen to like that stuff. People who would read Dante even if they didn’t have to.

I’m not against forcing students to take classes they don’t like, sometimes it’s hard to tell what you like until you try it. But I think colleges do too much of it. I don’t think my discipline will make you a better person or save your soul but it might help you find a better job. Unless the humanities can show that they change lives in general, I think helping to get a job is a pretty good characteristic for a course.

Yes, this goes back to the instrumentalism in our conception of the humanities. “Because it can change your life” is every bit as instrumentalist as “because employers are looking for it.” JimD does a nice job of stringing the two together — “Unless the humanities show that they change lives in general, I think helping to get a job is a pretty good characteristic for a course.” Yes, because jobs are scarce, and as I said in the previous thread, everything is a market. The kind of life you are able to live has everything to do with your means.

#22 Comment By Jones On March 20, 2015 @ 12:28 am

To answer the second aspect of your question: what’s Islam got to do with it?

There are a lot of different ways of answering this question. Islam might have everything, or nothing, to do with why I got into the humanities. The fact that I was actually raised to take a religion seriously-and that upbringing actually took-meant that I could read along with the intellectual history of the West and identify with it, feel that something was actually at stake for me personally in that story: the story of how Westerners gradually replaced religious modes of thought with secular ones. That was roughly what I was going through, as I questioned (and lost faith in) Islam. That’s an experience that anyone with a truly religious upbringing can have; though it’s possible that an average American Christian cannot have the same kind of understanding of religious civilization as a totally alien kind of civilization. For me, there was nothing to smooth over the radical break. There was no possible ground for the illusion that the religious worldview and the worldview of those around me had anything meaningful in common. But for Christians there might be things like that, such as superficial similarities and a less autonomous culture, and the idea that America is in some sense a “Christian nation.” But you cannot take Western intellectual history seriously unless you take religion seriously, as only someone who has truly, earnestly believed can.

But the other really important reason that Islam drove me into the humanities was the constant sense of moral alienation I felt, just being in the culture. Some people dive in headlong (assimilation), some clamp down on their own upbringing (isolation), but for me there was no choice but to think things through: to understand the civilization around me, to try to consciously develop all the beliefs and attitudes the people around me took for granted. And then I found, on reflection, that in a choice between the Western norm and the Islamic norm, the Western norm did not always win.

Today the relationship for me is more confusing and unsettled. For a long time, I realize, I’ve been searching for something in secular thought that it can never give. That is what drove me back into the arms of Islam. I’ll readily admit that the most important thing about Islam for me was that it was mine. To the extent that I seek an integrated whole, those strands lead deep into Islam. Probably, a lot of it has to do with love for my parents, and a desire to hold onto their way of life and their view of the world. I was sick of a dessicated life without love, faith, and community. Reason alone is not enough. I felt a sense of relief at no longer searching for things in the wrong places. Ironically I am hoping this is going to be useful to my academic career because it will free me up to be more careerist; not to give in to false aspirations of transcendence. For me academia will be the best it can be, a coldly rational form of egoistic striving. Humanistic culture is something different, and higher: it will live on with or without academia. And I hope to be a participant in it, with or without academia.

In sum, I don’t think Islam has a lot to do to inform the humanities. It could be that what you meant to ask in your question was, how did I, as a Muslim, end up caring so much about the humanities? And that’s the question I ended up answering. Frankly I would even say that I have a kind of moral commitment to the humanities that is independent from my commitment to Islam, and equally strong. I would never throw one overboard for the other. I think one explanation for that might be that much of the value of the humanistic tradition (for me) is aesthetic, although this is inevitably tied up with the other values. Bach, Chopin; Nabokov, Proust; Bernini, etc. Howe could you truly appreciate these without understanding history and philosophy?

#23 Comment By Eamus Catuli On March 20, 2015 @ 1:46 am

Humanities … seems to suffer both the ‘what is the point’ angle and a seeming lack of willingness to work off the material alone.

This point was discussed and debated in literature departments throughout the twentieth century — whether we shouldn’t be leaving all the theory aside and just teaching the material alone, aka literature “in itself” or “for its own sake.” Short version: it turns out it’s not possible to do this. There’s always a theory of some kind, i.e. some set of assumptions that are already present and operating before you even open the book. For starters, someone has had to decide what will count as “the material.” Someone has already made choices, constructing the curriculum and the course and the syllabus, inevitably in ways that could all be challenged and debated (and perhaps were). If the syllabus supposedly consists of “great” books or works, someone has decided in advance what counts as literary or artistic “greatness” — a hugely contentious set of questions if they’re opened up for discussion.

Some of the professors who bring trendy theory into the classroom are just being trendy or showing off, and some are grinding political axes. But some are trying to do what they see as the responsible thing: make their assumptions explicit, not just leave them to operate unseen in the background — with “the material” then looking to students as if it somehow simply materialized.

#24 Comment By anonymousdr On March 20, 2015 @ 7:17 am

The humanities did have a “point”–to effectively pass on and explain Christianity, and then from the 17th century or so to sometime between 1914 and 1968, to pass on, explain and participate in “culture”. I’m not sure that the humanities were ever about the pointlessness of beauty unless you count Paradise or culture as pointless

Knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew was a technical skill, not unlike coding is today, necessary to read the Scriptures and the Fathers. Philosophy, and its associated disciplines logic and grammar, was needed to give theology an intellectually sound basis. Knowledge of music and art were necessary for liturgical purposes.

As Christendom broke down after the Reformation, these skills were secularized, and put to the services of reading Greek and Latin Classics, giving the State an intellectually sound basis, and enjoying the secular liturgies of ballet, opera, and European art music. The skills had some “practical” import as well, and arguably still do today. Knowing a bit of Latin and the basic outline of American History and Western Civ, is still very helpful for lawyers and politicians, and even to a lesser degree doctors and scientists.

But, as others have pointed out, after the Hemoclysm that was the 20th century, the rank hypocrisy of Imperialism and the treatment of ethnic and racial minorities by Europeans, people lost faith in “culture” and in religion. In a culture that has no telos other than technological progress, there is no room for “culture” or the linguistic, philosophical, and aesthetic skills needed to study it. Without a consensus, religious or broadly cultural,you get the emergence of theory as the object of study.

What drew me to medicine is that it remains essentially realist in its epistemology and teleological in its outlook–we think we have real knowledge of the world and use that knowledge to treat disease.

#25 Comment By PDGM On March 20, 2015 @ 11:10 am

Ken,
You ask about the rise of nominalism and the decline of the scholastic synthesis. You might look at Louis Dupre’s 1991 book Passage to Modernity (Yale UP), chapter 4, as a starting point on the topic; plus his notes give good additional reading.

#26 Comment By Another Matt On March 20, 2015 @ 12:26 pm

The next big problem is the sheer competition in the professoriate. A lot of people, like me, would take any room they got to enrich the aesthetic and moral qualities of their work, or to focus on the moral education of students. But there is no room to do so when every spare moment of your life is taken up just trying to stay on the ladder. I have no real answer to this. But I think the competition is a huge problem. Here’s a possible answer though: better opportunities outside the academy for those with these kinds of skills and interests; but that would have to be part of a broader cultural regeneration.

Wow, is this ever true. One thing I’ve seen in humanities in general recently is people longing for collaboration where competition would usually have been the norm.

#27 Comment By Another Matt On March 20, 2015 @ 1:37 pm

Nelson Goodman’s Languages of Art is a famous and entertaining discussion of art and artistic concepts using nominalistic methodology. Nominalism need not necessarily be an impediment to intelligent artistic production and investigation. It’s mostly a problem when it’s applied by people who have very little artistic training or interaction with artists. Again, this is kind of the same across fields — a lot of problems arise when physicists speculate about biology.

#28 Comment By Kevin On March 20, 2015 @ 4:12 pm

Eamus Catuli, two things: One, I think you confuse formal means and substantive goods in your post. If you find complete sentences to be a constraint on your freedom because grammar is so restricting, then I can see your point. But the formal constraints of Dante’s poetry add to rather than detract from its capacity to liberate. If one were to write a description of the formal rules: 100 Cantos, all composed in continuous terza rima, etc., one could rather easily mock it too. Secondly, I wonder if one might look to a substantive rather than formal description of Humanities at Villanova for a clue about what’s possible: [6] It’s pretty exciting.

#29 Comment By Kevin On March 20, 2015 @ 4:19 pm

And this, too, is a fantastic path through the core curriculum at Villanova: [7]

(Meant to mention it in my post above). The notion of beginning one’s college study through the questions of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful is a great way of orienting students to college-level study in a new way.

#30 Comment By Another Matt On March 20, 2015 @ 5:10 pm

But the formal constraints of Dante’s poetry add to rather than detract from its capacity to liberate.

This is a secret feature of nearly all art: it’s in the solution to systems of constraints that artists generally find freedom. And even people who think they’re just going with their intuition (they sit down at the piano and play by ear, e.g.) are usually following constraints they just haven’t made explicit. Once you figure out how they work and internalize them, your freedom to express is amplified. This isn’t just in formal constraints either, but also in style, content, and value — all of these work together.

The history of most any art is a history of constraints.

[NFR: As is the history of all civilizations, said Philip Rieff. — RD]

#31 Comment By Mark Shiffman On March 20, 2015 @ 5:13 pm

I teach in Villanova’s Honors Program and so, unlike Eamus Catuli, can actually judge its merits on the basis of, well, its actual merits. Very likely the aspect of the program the original guest blogger has in mind is the freshman-sophomore interdisciplinary sequence I am teaching in right now. Three semesters, eight courses, great works in literature, philosophy, theology and political/social thought from Homer and Genesis to the twentieth century, taught by devoted teachers who sit in on each other’s strands and provide alternative angles on the material, modeling and inciting searching analysis and reflection. It’s a marvelous orienting foundation for a life of learning, as are some other less all-absorbing alternatives for the first three semesters of the Honors Program students. Eamus should drop in on class some time.

#32 Comment By David J. White On March 20, 2015 @ 5:13 pm

Sorry I’m late to the party, despite Rod’s invitation. Blame a couple of busy days, exacerbated by computer problems.

I confess that I simply haven’t thought as deeply about these issues as many of the other poster seem to have done, as well as the person whom Rod quotes in the original post.

But these are the things that occur to me:

Rod’s correspondent is corret in saying that graduate students in classics have their own stories about how they came to the field: some have an affinity for languages and enjoy the languages for their own sake; others fell in love with the literature and want to learn to read it in the original. Others are ancient history buffs. All of us are romantics to some degree or other.

And that is, perhaps, part of the problem: one of the reason why we often have such trouble making a case for our field(s) is that we have never had to make that case to ourselves. We all got into this racket because we found it intrinsically interesting. I’ve known people who pursued careers in music, or mathematics, or the visual arts for the same reason. They often have a similar problem articulating a defense of their field, because they’ve never had to make that argument to themselves.

People who embrace a particular religious tradition, particularly one other than the one in which they were raised, are often able to articulate the arguments in favor of it, because they have used these same arguments on themselves and found them persuasive. (Whether other people find them persuasive is another issue; the point is that they are able to argue their case.) But many of us in the humanities just fell into our areas of specialization simply because we had a knack for it, or an affinity for it, or because we simply like it, or because we had a favorite teacher or professor or someone who inspired us, and we want to emulate him or her. The point is that many of us are doing what we are doing for emotional rather than intellectual reasons. Many of use have never given much thought to articulating a defense of what we do, in large part because we have never had to persuade ourselves.

I always thought I would end up on the science side of things. I always did really well in my math and science classes and found English and art classes kind of a drag. I really liked classes where problems had only one clear answer! I assumed for the longest time that I would become an engineer, in part because that’s what my father did, and in part because my studies seemed to be tending that way. But I always had a love of history and language. My father had lots of books about ancient history sitting on the shelf, and my mother was constantly reading. In high school I gradually got more and more interested in Latin and in ancient history, so I started doing some classics in college, along with lots of advanced math classes. For awhile I was a double major in classics and math, and still had engineering in the back of my mind. But I found that I just didn’t enjoy the math classes anymore, and my father — who found five years of engineering school a real slog — told me that if I didn’t enjoy it anymore, I shouldn’t do it. (I will say that not finishing that second major in math is one of my lasting regrets.)

So, my ending up in classes was due less to reasoned argument than to emotional engagement with the material, and to deciding to pursue what I liked and seemed to be good at. (I was really shoecked when my SAT verbal score ended up being higher than my quantitative score.)

I don’t think I’m necessarily atypical in that regard; many of us are in this field because we more or less fell into it and decided to stay.

But here we are, having to make arguments that will persuade others of the benefit and lasting value of what we study.

My colleagues seem to be of two minds about the “utility” argument. There are those who feel that, for practical reasons of survival, we need to find a way to hitch our wagon to the rising star of STEM or whatever the latest pre-professional fad is, and find (or create) a place for ourselves at the table. For example, for a long time now Latin teachers have used improved SAT scores as a enticement to study Latin. Many classicists and others in the humanities turn to studies showing beneficial effects of studying humanities disciplines on future success in medicine, law, and other professional careers. We look for testimonials from former students who have had successful careers in these fields, and who are willing to say that their study of Greek or Latin or whatever, so we can quote them in our brochures and hold them up as models to our students.

Other think that getting dragged into the utility argument is a mug’s game, one that we’re always going to lose. So we fall back on “value” arguments. It’s been quite awhile since I’ve heard the argument that studying classics (or the humanities in general) makes you a better person, though I know that at least some of my professors really swore by it. Perhaps, in our hearts, we believe it, too.

About a quarter century ago the Women’s Classicsl Caucus conducted a survey of its members about their attitudes towards the profession. One of the questions was, Does studying the classics make one a better person? Perhaps the best, and certainly the most succinct, answer was returned by a prominent retired classicist who said, in Greek, ta men ta d’ou (in some ways yes, in other ways no).

Of course, given the petty and nasty nature of academic quarrels, it’s hard to argue that pursuing any academic field makes one a better person!

I have a couple arguments I sometimes fall back on. One is that knowing and understanding the past is essential to understanding the present and future. Many of us consider this self-evident, but increasingly in society today it isn’t. In a previous post, Rod, you suggested (perhaps you were quoting someone; I don’t remember) that the underlying philosophical assumption of modernity is that the present owes no debt to the past, which runs completely contrary to the attitude of previous ages. This prevailing attitude makes it harder to make the argument that knowing and understanding the past is essential to understanding the present, and I’m not really sure how to counter it.

I do occasionally make a version of the utility argument, but it’s utility directed towards everyday life rather than towards careerism. I suggest that studying the past will accustom one to the idea of change, and that an understanding of the way societies have changed will allow one to adapt better to changes in one’s own society. Another suggestion I make has to do with rhetoric: ancient education was based heavily on rhetoric, and ancient authors and their writings are steeped in it. After awhile, when reading ancient literature, one gets in the habit of asking oneself, “What is this guy trying to sell me?” That inculcates a valuable habit of mind, I think, in a society awash in advertising.

But at the end of the day, arguments like these will persuade only those already predisposed to be persuaded by them. I think that the attraction of our disciplines is the intrinsic appeal, to some, of their subject matter, and I think we have to reconcile ourselves to the knowledge that our subjects will always be very much a minority taste — and, for that matter, always have been.

We will have to continue as we always have, making the case one student at time, one reader at time, and just believe that, over the span of a career, each of us has helped attract the few who will carry the torch to the next generation.

#33 Comment By Doug Bilodeau On March 20, 2015 @ 6:49 pm

I have been in love with Greek and Latin and classical studies from an early age (though my academic work was in physics). I have been spending a good part of my retirement learning what I had little time to learn before. But I don’t think these or any other studies in the humanities can mold ideal citizens or even prevent monumental atrocities. Alexander carried the Iliad along as he went out to devastate western Asia. The resulting Hellenistic commonwealth may have been a very good thing, but no thanks to Alexander’s tender conscience. Late Victorian professors thought of classics as ideal for training future administrators of the British Empire.

The fact is that many of the original patrons of classical works (and some of the writers) either committed or were willing to commit atrocities and massacres in order to advance their power [like the powerful anywhere at any time]. Great books often work better as examples of what not to do, rather than ethical guides. Sometimes, as in Homer, we are warned with great eloquence about the horrors which people of the past had to accept as inescapable reality.

Ancient Athens without Jerusalem may be beautiful (don’t take your sense of smell along – the Minoans had far better sanitation 1000 years earlier, including flush toilets, at least in the palace). But it is a cold and sterile beauty to us at this distance of ages. We can’t really reconstruct the painted Parthenon, or the mood of the scruffy, rowdy crowds who lived under it. Tragedy travels well, but it is the tragedy of sad stories of the death of kings. Poignant stories with universal themes, but no transcendent compassion. A little irony here and there. But no salvation from bondage in Egypt, no covenant with a God who is patient and who often forgives those who don’t deserve it. Certainly no deliverance from death, from ‘going down to Sheol’. Just pathetic Achilles in Hades, who tells Odysseus he would give up all his posthumous glory and be the slave of a poor man on the living earth rather than rule among the dead. [Plato recommended deleting such passages from literature as unedifying.]

The classics were transformed by a miraculous eruption of grace on the earth in the 1st century. The Greek and Roman worlds then came to be understood as the background, the cultural ecosystem, within which Christianity arose. The works of Vergil and Thucydides were in a sense retroactively redeemed by the possibility of a standpoint of divine mercy. Human nature has been redefined, and ‘the humanities’ as we understand them could come into being.

Beauty is a wonderful thing, which can be found in many forms in many places. Grace and mercy, compassion and forgiveness – and understanding of their divine origin – are far more rare. Take those away, and not just Greek and Latin, but all the humanities become an “easy target”, as one commenter noted.

#34 Comment By David J. White On March 20, 2015 @ 7:46 pm

Have you read Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis? It has an extremely funny take on all of this.

Lucky Jim is arguably one of the best books ever written about academics in the humanities, along with David Lodge’s Trading Places and Small World.

#35 Comment By mdc On March 20, 2015 @ 9:31 pm

Hegel on reading the Classics:

“Trust in the eternal laws of the Gods has vanished, just as the oracles are dumb, who pronounced on what to do in particular cases. The statues set up are now corpses in stone whence the living soul has flown, while the hymns of praise are words from which all belief has gone. The tables of the gods are bereft of spiritual food and drink, and from his games and festivals man no more receives the joyful sense of his unity with the divine Being. The works of the muse lack the force and energy of the spirit, for Spirit has gained its certainty and assurance of itself just from the crushing of gods and men. They have become now just what they are for us — beautiful fruit already picked from the tree, which a kindly fate has passed on to us, as a girl might set the fruit before us. It cannot give us the actual life in which they existed, not the tree that bore them, not the earth and the elements which constituted their substance, nor the climate that determined their constitutive character, nor the change of seasons which controlled the process of their growth. So too it is not their living world that Fate preserves and gives us with those works of ancient art, not the spring and summer of that ethical life in which they bloomed and ripened, but the veiled remembrance alone of all this reality. Our action, therefore, when we enjoy them is not that of worship, through which our conscious life might attain its complete truth and be satisfied to the full: our action is external; it consists in wiping off some drop of rain or speck of dust from these fruits, and in place of the inner elements composing the reality of the ethical life, a reality that environed, created and inspired these works, we erect in prolix detail the scaffolding of the dead elements of their outward existence, — language, historical circumstances, etc. All this we do, not in order to enter into their very life, but only to represent them within ourselves. But just as the maiden who hands us the plucked fruits is more than the nature which presented them in the first instance — the nature which provided all their detailed conditions and elements, tree, air, light, and so on — since in a higher way she gathers all this together into the light of her self-conscious eye, and her gesture in offering the gifts; so too the spirit of the fate, which presents us with those works of art, is more than the ethical life realized in that nation. For it is the inwardizing in us, in the form of conscious memory, of the spirit which in them was manifested in a still external way; — it is the spirit of the tragic fate which collects all those individual gods and attributes of the substance into the one Pantheon, into the spirit which is itself conscious of itself as spirit.”

#36 Comment By relstprof On March 21, 2015 @ 2:53 am

@Another Matt

Thanks for signaling how we could listen to your music. I checked out a few of your compositions, including the Stevens work, on youtube. I really enjoyed them. Thank you.

Look, I understand that one of things that grants me a paycheck is the business school on campus, but God, I wish that Jesuit universities had put their time and energy into conservatories and art schools instead of business schools. I’d take the pay cut.

I remember a couple of years ago walking around downtown Baltimore overhearing the Peabody students talking about exams on Bartok and thinking: the major Catholic schools have no cultural future. The best buildings, the best paid profs are in finance and law. Barbarians. (But I do appreciate my students, for all that. It isn’t their fault.)

The worst was having two Jesuits a couple of years ago sing the praises of Adam Smith to me at a cocktail party. And everyone thinks these characters are Marxists. Ha!

#37 Comment By relstprof On March 21, 2015 @ 4:10 am

Perhaps we also examine Lacan’s notion of the “subject supposed to know” so nicely extended by Zizek into our pragmatic American ideology:

Isn’t it nice to have these people around who know the Bible, Homer, Cicero, Dante, Aquinas, Shakespeare, etc. just to assure us that we have “culture” in some way, that we can rest in the attitude that someone cares for what we’re all supposed to care about (for 2 years of college anyway), while we go on our happy/unhappy way of consuming, popping out kids, struggling to survive in competitive corporate hell, going to church (probably not), and generally living the so-called American Dream.

And these people “supposed to know”, they’re paid off so easily, anyway.

Until no one really thinks what we’re supposed to know is what we’re supposed to know anymore. (Dear child, don’t become one of them, surely!) And then it dies, for real. This is the death of the desire, because the Other no longer desires it.

Zizek argues that this has already happened to Christianity in fundamental ways (we look for the “subject supposed to believe” because it soothes us, comforts us — someone is true — the monk! the Pope! Even as we kill it). But the next victim is the humanities wholesale. And the culprit isn’t Stalinism, it’s capitalism.

Rene Girard is singing a similar tune.

#38 Comment By Amy On March 21, 2015 @ 11:00 am

I am homeschooling five children and giving them a classical education–and giving myself one in the process. With my older two daughters now in high school, we are starting to think about their higher education. Both girls have read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, most of Dante’s Divine Comedy, four or five Shakespeare plays, Paradise Lost, and other great works. In other words, they are getting their first-pass taste of these amazing pieces of literature. They enjoy it and I imagine they could have a nice college experience studying literature or the classics–but then we have to think realistically. They likely are not headed to an elite institution and I could never send them to a state school for an English literature or classics degree (with the politically correct point-of-view that has no respect for the subject, but elevates gender and race studies). And how would that prepare them anyway to pay for their education, since we are not bankrolled to do it? I know my children will need a vocation, so practically speaking, I am trying to plant the seed in them to pursue their own liberal education throughout their lives, whether or not professors to guide them.

I do a lot of thinking about the justification of pursuing a classical education, given that we have taken this path instead of conventional education. Rod’s reader, in the original post, said,
“As a final point, it is worth noting too that the reason for the loss of this common faith must be dealt with much more seriously than advocates for classical education have tended to do (in my experience). George Steiner’s In Bluebeard’s Castle has a brilliant meditation on the destructive effects of the sobering realization that the Holocaust’s architects had the sort of humanistic education we are here pining for. Really? Europe’s intellectuals said. This stuff can make us better? But if it cannot even prevent that, what good is it? How can we trust it again?”

Those of us who sing the praises of classical education have to take this objection seriously, I think. When people like me say that we choose to educate classically because it shapes one’s person into something better, or develops a taste and discernment for beauty and truth, or instills virtue into the soul, where is the proof in the pudding? How would I recognize this in another human being? Some seem deeply impacted by their classical education and their thinking is changed. Others seem to escape unaffected.

As Doug Bilodeau said in a comment above, Jerusalem makes all the difference. I think that Christ provides the answer. Some make find this is a facile answer, but I think that Christian doctrine best explains the situation. Jesus Christ is the Truth. Those without Him maybe able to see and appreciate shadows of the Truth, as we see in ancient Athens, but full illumination can come only with the light of Christ, who in His grace works inner change in the soul. Christian doctrine teaches the depravity of humans. Depraved minds need Divine transformation. It makes an idol of classical education to think that it will work this miracle alone.

I understand why Rod titled his book “How Dante Can Save Your Life,” but surely he would agree that Dante was but an instrument in the hands of God. I hope, along with you, Rod, that readers of your book would discover the Divine Comedy, but if it isn’t for the aim of meeting Christ, I think it will be an empty salvation. (I can’t wait to read your book, by the way!)

That said, I still wish that more American students were classically educated before they even get to college. There are a lot of smart kids out there, but their schools are hiding the real gems from them and instead peddling costume jewelry. While I don’t expect classical education (or a liberal arts education) to redeem our culture or stave off unthinkable cultural sins, I do think it provides a common grace and, for some, a path to Divine grace.

[NFR: Absolutely, re: God using Dante to draw me out of the dark wood. As you know from having read the Commedia, all the world is an icon of God for those with eyes to see. — RD]

#39 Comment By Another Matt On March 21, 2015 @ 8:48 pm

@relstprof:

Thanks so much for listening. It means a lot to me.

I think that what you say about Jesuit universities could actually be applied to the Church as a whole, and religious institutions in general: they could be commissioning art. And not just what we think of as “religious art” — as has been pointed out in this space before, what is needed for the Church to make a difference in artistic culture is art, writing, etc. written by people who have a religious perspective. One reason I chose Stevens for my song-cycle is that he is serious about treating reality and humanity with all the large-mindedness it deserves, with only a few appeals to anything religious (at least in Harmonium).

Sunday Morning, probably the best poem from Harmonium, has so much to say about beauty and longing, and about what we owe each other once humanity collectively loses religion. The fifth and sixth stanzas are two of my favorites:

V

She says, “But in contentment I still feel
The need of some imperishable bliss.”
Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams
And our desires. Although she strews the leaves
Of sure obliteration on our paths,
The path sick sorrow took, the many paths
Where triumph rang its brassy phrase, or love
Whispered a little out of tenderness,
She makes the willow shiver in the sun
For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze
Upon the grass, relinquished to their feet.
She causes boys to pile new plums and pears
On disregarded plate. The maidens taste
And stray impassioned in the littering leaves.

VI

Is there no change of death in paradise?
Does ripe fruit never fall? Or do the boughs
Hang always heavy in that perfect sky,
Unchanging, yet so like our perishing earth,
With rivers like our own that seek for seas
They never find, the same receding shores
That never touch with inarticulate pang?
Why set the pear upon those river banks
Or spice the shores with odors of the plum?
Alas, that they should wear our colors there,
The silken weavings of our afternoons,
And pick the strings of our insipid lutes!
Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.

This poem is full of allusions to Milton, and they’re there to show just how bleak Milton’s view of Paradise is.