Benedict Option For The Humanities
Can you imagine wasting your money, your mind, and your life studying this garbage? As a Twitter follower of mine said:
Ross Douthat writes an extremely sobering column about the collapse of the academic humanities (this “queer migrations” position sounds like social science, not humanities, but the general theme is applicable). It begins:
This column tries to keep its cool, but last week I briefly surrendered to crisis and existential dread, to the sense that an entire world is dissolving underneath our feet — institutions crumbling, authorities corrupted, faith in the whole experiment evaporating.
What put Douthat in this mood? A collection of essays in the Chronicle of Higher Education, talking about the last gasp for humanities in US colleges. More:
The package’s title is a single word, “Endgame,” and its opening text reads like the crawl for a disaster movie. “The academic study of literature is no longer on the verge of field collapse. It’s in the midst of it.” Jobs are disappearing, subfields are evaporating, enrollment has tanked, and amid the wreckage the custodians of humanism are “befuddled and without purpose.”
A thousand different forces are killing student interest in the humanities and cultural interest in high culture, and both preservation or recovery depend on more than just a belief in truth and beauty, a belief that “the best that has been thought and said” is not an empty phrase. But they depend at least on that belief, at least on the ideas that certain books and arts and forms are superior, transcendent, at least on the belief that students should learn to value these texts and forms before attempting their critical dissection.
I’ve told the story in this space about the time I gave a speech about how reading Dante saved my life, and then took questions from the audience. A young woman, graduate student age, asked me with evident sincerity why we should pay attention to someone like Dante, who represents a sexist, racist European culture. I thought she was teasing me at first, but it was obvious that she meant it. I don’t remember how I responded. All I recall is shock that the question was posed, especially after I had just explained in great detail how amazed I was to discover that this late medieval Tuscan poem held within it insights that saved my life. A professor of literature came to me after the Q&A and told me that the young woman’s question reflects how colleges teach the Greats today.
If that is the case, then they are destroying the humanities, and they deserve to commit suicide. But we have to rescue this art and literature from the educated barbarians who have custody of them, but who have proved to be such rotten caretakers of the tradition. Here is an excerpt from an essay by Australian academic Simon During, which Douthat says is the best one in that Chronicle package. In the piece, he frames the collapse of the humanities as a “second secularization” in the West. In the first one, religion was marginalized. In this new secularization, high culture is marginalized. During writes:
What about resistance to cultural secularization? It will help to turn first to the three major genres of resistance to religious secularization. The first is absolutist: Secularization is wrong because God’s revelations and miracles are real. The second is functionalist: Religion provides the framework in
which our society, culture, and morality are most securely grounded, and therefore attempts to marginalize it should be thwarted. The third is existential: Human beings are lost in a cosmos they cannot account for and therefore driven toward the transcendentalisms that articulate the wonder, awe, and anxiety they encounter in approaching Being. Religion, the thinking goes, best expresses those affective, existential needs in part because it binds us to earlier generations.
The secularization analogy is illuminating here. Some of those who wish to push back on cultural
secularization do so on absolutist grounds, making the claim, for instance, that the cultural canon that
holds Western civilization’s glories is where real beauty and truth exist. Some make a functionalist
argument: The humanities provide irreplaceable grounds for a good democratic society. They can, for instance, shape empathetic and tolerant moral sensibilities more powerfully than any alternative.
Last, some who resist cultural secularization do so on existential grounds. They claim that high cultural traditions and artifacts, along with the practices of interpretation and critique developed in
response to them, provide us with the least reductive, most subtle, most profound, impersonal, and
thoughtful experiences and lessons available to us, experiences that preserve and sanction the heritage.
None of these defenses seems to me particularly strong. Most of us agree that our canon does not bear any absolute truth and beauty, but rather it belongs to (a fraction of) one particular culture or cluster of cultures. The functionalist argument is weak because, as we have seen, the humanities preach many messages besides empathy and tolerance and the democratic, cosmopolitan virtues.
And they don’t seem to make people more empathetic and tolerant anyway. The existential argument is politically impossible because of its implicit elitism: It divides and hierarchizes the world into those shaped by the humanities and those not. Against the grain of contemporary ideology, it also downgrades experiences that happen in, say, nature or in sport rather than in the proximity of high-cultural artifacts. But it is also weak because it is irrelevant. Some, especially among the upper-middle class, will no doubt continue to experience canonical cultural works as incomparably enriching (I do so myself), but that will not hold cultural secularization back. Under secularization, admiration for and commitment to the canon and the old disciplines remains an option (especially for elites), just as religion remains an option (especially for non-elites).
This is an important insight. If both religion and the traditional humanities are seen as tangential to human existence, obviously we have to ask why. The late sociologist and cultural critic Philip Rieff is extremely helpful here. Carl Trueman wrote a good, clear summary of Rieff’s theories of culture. Excerpt:
In Sacred Order/Social Order, Rieff offers a historical scheme for categorizing cultures in light of these basic insights. Rieff calls these First, Second, and Third World cultures. First Worlds are characterized by a variety of myths that ground and justify their cultures through something that transcends the immediate present. These might be the tales of the gods and heroes in the Iliad or the Norse sagas, the philosophy of Plato, or the mythic stories of origin found in Native American societies. Whatever their specific content, what they share in common is that they make the present culture accountable to something greater than itself. Rieff says that a belief in fate is perhaps the key here.
Second Worlds are characterized not by a belief in fate but by faith. The great examples would be Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, where cultural codes are rooted in the belief in a specific divine and sovereign being who stands over and above creation, and to whom all creatures are ultimately accountable. First and Second Worlds are similar in that both set their social order upon a deeper, even sacred, order. It is the Third World that represents a decisive rupture on this point.
Third Worlds are characterized by their repudiation of any sacred order. There is nothing in a Third World beyond this world by which culture can be justified. The implications of this are, according to Rieff, comprehensive and catastrophic. First, because of their rejection of a sacred order, Third World cultures face an unprecedented challenge: that of justifying themselves on the basis of themselves. No culture in history, Rieff notes, has ever done this successfully. It is a fool’s errand that ends in cultural collapse:
No culture in history has sustained itself merely as a culture, however attractive and authoritative. Cultures are dependent on their predicative sacred orders and break into mere residues whenever their predicates are broken. That is the main reason why our late second cultures and early thirds are increasingly unstable.
To return to our initial question—why is so much traumatic cultural change occurring with such rapidity and intensity today—we can helpfully apply this scheme to our current context. The proliferation of identities and the consequent chaotic militancy of identity politics is inextricably related to the collapse of the sacred, to the demolition of any transcendent metaphysical basis on which a coherent social order might be founded. Even the question of “What is human nature?” becomes something impossible to answer with any degree of certainty or consensus.
Read it all. There is no way to arrest this collapse, this suicide of the West, whose intellectuals have ceased not only to believe in its own traditional sacred order (which includes the canonical power of the traditional Western arts and humanities), but in the idea of sacred order at all. “Decolonizing” the humanities is an ideological label for destruction. If you do not believe that your culture is in some sense rooted in transcendence (“sacred order”), whether explicitly religious or in grounded in some other metaphysical conception, it will not stand.
As Rieff points out, it is not enough to say that the humanities are “good for you.” That is therapy. It doesn’t work, or it doesn’t work as long as its value is seen as primarily therapeutic. My book How Dante Can Save Your Life is, admittedly, in a therapeutic vein. No apology for that. But the reason that reading Dante helped me therapeutically is because I believe that the beauty of the poetry illuminated for me virtues and realities that actually exist, but which had been hidden from me. See what I mean? Dante showed me the world as it really is, and me as I really am. It revealed truths that are truly true (i.e., this is real), not just instrumentally true (i.e., this is helpful). It could not have been therapeutic if it were not also truly true.
Obviously I’m not claiming that the Inferno is a real place. I’m saying that the world created by the imagination of Dante Alighieri — a world that could not have been created by anyone other than a Western poet — revealed eternal truths about the human condition, and of the nature of reality. I do not claim that Westerners have a monopoly on this vision. But I do claim that Westerners — and Christians, including Christians of the cultural East — have a particular perspective that is valuable in and of itself, and should be privileged, because it is a more reliable way of perceiving ultimate truth than any competing framework. This is not, of course, to say that other cultures do not have valuable insights from which we can and should learn. It is to make a claim for the superior intellectual and cultural value of the Western inheritance. The Hebrews were privileged to be granted particular access to God, and so, in turn, were Christians, who received that heritage and combined it with the philosophical genius of the Greeks and created, over the centuries, what we now call Western civilization. This is a gift to be celebrated, with gratitude. It is a living tradition that exists, or should exist, in constant dialogue with other civilizations and their own heritages. The Western tradition today, for example, encompasses Duke Ellington as much as it encompasses Gustav Mahler. White Westerners enslaved the Africans, but when they got here, and took Western musical instruments and traditions into their own lives, they created art of incredible power and beauty. That’s ours too, because African-Americans are Western people too, as are Asians and all others who are part of this civilization.
Rieff, ethnically Jewish, was not a religious believer at all. He was a passionate believer in high culture, though. I don’t know enough about him to say whether he was confident that the high culture of the West could exist severed from its roots in Abrahamic religion. I think there must be an answer to that question, but I have to invite students of Rieff to give it.
Me, I don’t think it can. What I think is undeniably true is that it cannot survive absent a shared belief in transcendence. This is why I bang on so much about nominalism and voluntarism being crucial turning points for Western civilization, insofar as they ultimately led us to believe that there is no such thing as meaning existing outside of the meaning we choose to impart to phenomena. In other words, that meaning is entirely a creation of humans, and imposed on a meaningless universe.
I have heard it said for years that in the end, one will only be able to receive a traditional humanities education in Christian colleges and universities, because only those institutions can perceive the humanities as grounded in transcendence. But more recently, I have been told by Christian academics themselves that their institutions are in collapse on this front too. At the risk of oversimplification, many of these schools have also discarded belief in the traditional humanities as rooted somehow in transcendence, and connected to the Christian mission. They too are submitting to the same disease that has secularized high culture.
Do I believe that you have to believe in Bach, Dante, and Shakespeare to be a good Christian? Certainly not. But I believe that you have to have faith that there is a sacred order, to use Rieff’s term, and that the arts and humanities of the Western tradition offer particular expression of and access to that sacred order. The scholar Stephen Gardner, I believe, has written that Rieff was a secular Jew, but a philosophical Catholic, in that he believed in sacred order and hierarchy. Whatever our own religious or philosophical commitments, if we aren’t philosophical Catholics, in that sense, then we can’t sustain any kind of humanism, be it secular or Christian. If art and literature is nothing more than an expression of power based on ethnicity, sex, religion, and what have you, then the study of the humanities becomes nothing more than a struggle for power. And this, as we see, is what has happened. As Douthat wisely discerns, the entire structure must
depend at least on that belief, at least on the ideas that certain books and arts and forms are superior, transcendent, at least on the belief that students should learn to value these texts and forms before attempting their critical dissection.
What we need is a Benedict Option for the traditional humanities. If we understand their collapse in postmodernity as a version of what has happened to Western Christianity in modernity, then we had better act to create the equivalent of monasteries and monastic communities within which this knowledge, and these practices, can survive this age of darkness and barbarism. These places will esteem the Western tradition of art and literature as having value in and of themselves, not solely in relation to what they can do for us.
Besides, as Sir Roger Scruton argued in this essay on the value of independent schools, we can never know for sure how the tradition we receive and transmit will serve us. Excerpt:
Independent schools, with an ethos of their own, have evolved in response to those desires. They embody knowledge of the learning process that cannot be easily taught from scratch. Over the past two centuries, they have proved themselves able to produce an educated elite that saw us through bad times, during which we were challenged to compete in all fields – intellectual, military, ethical and economic. And that elite has proved decisive for our national survival.
Finally, and most importantly, there is the interest of knowledge, which is the one most important thing at risk in all our educational experiments. Knowledge is an intrinsic value that cannot be weighed in terms of cost and benefit. It is the value on which civilisations are built and to which, as Aristotle said, our faculties naturally aspire. [Emphasis mine — RD]
Education involves the transmission of knowledge, and knowledge is often lost in the attempt. Educationalists influenced by Rousseau and Dewey have insisted in recent times on the rights of the child, emphasising “child-centred” teaching – that is, teaching that engages with the interests and abilities of those who as yet have no education. But there is precious little evidence that such a method of teaching succeeds in the main goal, which is not about the interests of the child at all, but about the transmission of knowledge. Knowledge not transmitted is knowledge lost. And regardless of whether the knowledge transmitted is – or thought to be – useful, it creates a duty that lies on all of us to see that it is preserved and, if possible, amplified.
In any case, we cannot know in advance which bits of knowledge will be the most useful in the ongoing march of history. Latin, Greek and ancient history, condemned for their futility by all the progressives of the Victorian period, turned out to be exactly what was needed in the task of governing an empire acquired in a “fit of absence of mind”. How else do you prepare yourself to govern countries with competing gods, strange languages and a tribal conception of obligations than by studying the only civilisations that have been able to write the matter down?
Conversely, the crazy mathematicians of the time, such as Boole, seemed to their classicist contemporaries to be lost in futile problems about nothing: what hangs on knowing the contours of the empty set or the sequence of transfinite cardinals? In fact, this wonderful store of knowledge turned out to be exactly what was needed by the science of computation.
As I have said many times here, the classical Christian school movement is a kind of Benedict Option. Classical education presumes that there is a right order to the human mind and heart, and that we can learn what that order is, and form ourselves to it, by studying the wisdom of Western civilization. In this essay on the meaning and purpose of classical education, Martin Cothran says:
Today’s education is almost a direct inversion of the old classical emphasis on how to think and what to do; the political and vocational emphases of today’s education teach students, not how to think and what to do, but what to think and how to do. Its political goal is to use schools to change culture, and its practical goal is to change students to fit the culture.
The goal of classical education was very different. It was not interested in changing culture or fitting children to a culture. Its goal was to pass on a culture—and one culture in particular: the culture of the Christian West.
In classical education, students read the classics. They focus their attention on what the Victorian scholar Matthew Arnold called “the best which has been thought and said.” In Western civilization, our focus should be on what I call the “three cultures”: Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem—the Greeks, the Romans, and the Hebrews.
But why study these cultures? We should study the Greeks because the Greeks were the archetype of philosophical and literary man. They were the original philosophers and poets. Every great idea—and every lousy one—came from some Greek somewhere. All you’ve got to do is trace it back.
Why study the Romans? We study the Romans because the Romans were the archetype of practical, political man. They were the road builders and the republicans of ancient times. These are the people who ran the world for a thousand years. They ran the most enduring government history has ever seen. In fact, the Founding Fathers used the old Roman republic as their model in constructing the American government.
Why study the Hebrews? We study the Hebrews because they are the archetype of spiritual man. From them we learn how God deals with individuals and with nations.
In studying these three cultures, classical education does not ignore American history and culture. In fact, in order to fully understand American civilization, a knowledge of these three cultures is crucial since, as political philosopher Russell Kirk has pointed out, all three of them were essential in the forming of our thought, our political institutions, and our moral principles. We study these three cultures and the great works they produced because they constitute our heritage as Western people.
Lynne Cheney, former head of the National Endowment of the Humanities under Ronald Reagan, once said that if you graduate from school not knowing what Western civilization is, then you are not really educated. She was right.
If you don’t believe that there is a such thing as human nature, and that there is a such thing as an order that exists outside of ourselves, that we can know, in part — well, there’s no point to any of this. But if that’s what you believe, then you should be prepared to say farewell to Western civilization.
Those who are not prepared to see the humanities and the liberal arts fade into nothingness had better act, and act now. These colleges and universities, like many of our churches and seminaries, may be too far gone to save. It is time to create the communities and institutions that can keep the tradition alive, and to strengthen those that are now standing as a counterculture (for example, The Circe Institute).
UPDATE: A reader writes:
Rod, I’m a Classics student at a strong public university. I went into Classics purely because of my love of these old books, in particularly Classical Philosophy, which saved my life similarly to how Dante saved yours. Unfortunately, after thriving in my program and having the opportunities to meet people and get a good look at the ‘future of the discipline’, I’ve seen enough to realize that there is no hope for these institutions and by extension the future of traditional Western Civilization, both within Classics and without. The students are thoroughly rotten, drones made of pure zealotry, but the greater fault lies in the professors who even if they believe there is something of worth in our heritage are too meek to defend it. I understand that they are themselves products of historical trends.
It has been very difficult to digest this reality. I could probably have gotten into whichever graduate school I liked but I’ve realized that this is fruitless. Instead I am planning to try to begin a polis of sorts somewhere in the country where to begin with a few likeminded friends and myself would dedicate ourselves to the study of these old works and tend to the fire of the good, true and beautiful in a time of great material prosperity and ethical darkness.
A different reader writes:
Nietzsche himself saw this coming. In Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits (1878) he acknowledged the link between great works of art in the Christian West and the Christian belief that sustained them:
“With profound sorrow one admits to oneself that, in their highest flights, the artists of all ages have raised to heavenly transfiguration precisely those conceptions which we now recognize as false [and here he is referring to core beliefs of Christianity]. . . . If belief in such truth declines in general, then that species of art can never flourish again which — like the Divine Comedy, the paintings of Raphael, the frescoes of Michelangelo, the Gothic cathedrals — presupposes not only a cosmic but a metaphysical significance in the objects of art. A moving tale will one day be told how there once existed such an art, such an artist’s faith.”
UPDATE.2: A reader writes:
Rod, back before you used Disqus, I once posted here and indicated that as a college professor of humanities myself, I honestly don’t see how we can do a Benedict Option in any meaningful way. That’s because the minute we profs open our mouths to opine in ANY WAY that Western civilization is great and dead white males are not inherently evil, we commit professional suicide. (I am soon to be unemployed, once again, for this very reason. And I’m a woman! Even that doesn’t protect me any more.) Once your name gets associated with politically incorrect people and movements, you’re fried. Having tenure doesn’t even help, ask James Tracy (formerly) at Florida Atlantic U and Anthony Esolen (formerly) at Providence College. So how can we band together BO-style and do anything–apart from losing our jobs en masse?
Teaching liberal arts these days is much like it was for Russian profs in the Soviet era, or so some of them have told me: they kept their heads down, spouted gibberish about Marx and Lenin an adequate number of times to satisfy their overlords, and otherwise did the best they could to teach whatever good they could get away with–always aware that the professional version of “a knock at the door” could come at any time.
That said, if anyone can come up with some academics-version of BO that I can’t think of, I for one am all ears. And while we’re on the subject, hey, please hire me, somebody who reads this! Odds are high that we have so much in common already that I’d love to work for you! That said, how many of Rod’s readers actually work in university administrations?
In the U.S., at least, there are a number of schools with Great Books programs, and teaching at one is a humanities prof’s dream. Perhaps we simply need to realize that (a) we need more of them, and (b) we need to encourage our kids to go to them. You think?