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Fragments in the Ruins

A classics student explains why the humanities do not cohere in the university

Here’s a fantastic comment by a reader responding to my earlier post about why we need the humanities. 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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