The Real Threat Facing the Humanities

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Higher education in the United States is beset with a variety of crises, from skyrocketing tuition rates to the attendant ballooning student loan debt. Much has been written in the last several years, in particular, about the dire situation in which the humanities find themselves in the universities, as student enrollment in majors such as history, literature, philosophy, or theology dwindles. The prevailing theory is that the phenomenon is due to an increased interest of both schools and students in the technology sector.

It all comes down to money, as the New Republic has neatly summarized this trend: “Public universities have undergone a sea change in the past quarter century, as state funding has been steadily, and at times precipitously, withdrawn. Universities, in turn, have come to value especially those programs that can generate revenue through alumni donations, external grants, or tuition. Under this new business model, humanities programs suffer in general and small departments, like classics and philosophy, find themselves perpetually under threat, no matter what their historical significance to higher learning.”

Thus, as our institutions of higher learning continue their evolution (or devolution) into de facto research facilities and job training centers for corporations, many have begun to question the place of the humanities within these entities, not a few among them being donors and administrators. To them, these disciplines simply aren’t useful. Why should we invest in students who learn ancient Greek history or modern French literature when graduating engineers, computer scientists, chemists, and biologists will be more likely to be procure high-paying jobs? Such successes will then boost the university’s profile, and make it more attractive to prospective students as a prime recruitment center for companies offering plum positions; and once those students have become highly-paid alumni, the universities will be happy to flood them with calls and emails asking for donations. Thus, publications like Forbes call for cutting funding for the humanities.

The argument, then, is that students opt to study scientific and technical fields because these have more lucrative potential than their counterparts in the humane letters, and universities, eager to tout “successful” graduates and to receive their donations, are only too happy to oblige, and to re-shape their curricula to match the market demand. Yet the humanities, I would argue, have been in danger long before our current technological boom, from a threat that is internal, not external. I argue that the greatest issue facing the humanities is in their willingness to change themselves in order to maintain that aspect most sacred to the modern world: relevance.

These disciplines initially developed as avenues for man’s search for truth. All men by nature desire to know the truth, as Aristotle famously stated at the outset of his Metaphysics, in which he also gave a notably pithy definition of the truth: “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.” If truth is the adequation of the mind to reality, then we come to the truth by exercising our minds accordingly. The disciplines of the humanities are just such exercises with just such an aim. The study of our past, the exploration of what can be gained through our rational powers, the engagement of such with revelation, and our reflection upon our own artistic expression, were all ways by which we strove to come to know what is.

For millennia, from the Greeks and Romans to the late antique Christian appropriation of their thought, and through the Scholastic synthesis, the truth of existence was sought in this way. In the Enlightenment, however, a different approach developed. For the thinkers of this period, the purpose of knowledge was not to apprehend reality, but rather to master it. As Francis Bacon laconically put it, “Knowledge is power.” Perhaps Bacon might amend that to say, “Knowledge is for power.”

As Hans-Georg Gadamer observed in Truth and Method, the Enlightenment developed a prejudice about what constitutes truth, or how we find it, and the humanities, rather than objecting, instead adopted the modi operandi of the physical sciences, operating under the assumption that it was these methods that brought real knowledge. Thus, new “sciences” like sociology and psychology try to measure the immeasurable, from “humor orientation scales,” to calculating the percentage of communication that is nonverbal, to online relationship compatibility tests (“You’re 83 percent compatible”). And the venerable disciplines adopted new ways.

History began to focus largely on economic and materialistic motivators, especially with the advent of Marxism. The study of literature increasingly honed in on the study of language itself, hardening that into philology and spawning the birth of “communication studies” departments. Philosophy moved toward analytic philosophy, which also reduced itself to analyses of language, leading to the critiques of Derrida and Foucault about “linguistic structures of power” and philosophers despairing of their ability to transcend language games. (Scholastic philosophy can hardly find a place even in many Catholic universities.) In theology, Scripture was dissected by linguists and historians, its “mythology” reduced to a primitive way of coping with an overwhelming world or dismissed outright. This results in the diminution of theology departments and the rise of departments in religious studies, which study the purely human phenomena within religious experience.

The goal of these movements within these disciplines was to remain relevant within the university that no longer values what the humanities in themselves had to offer. The result was that the humanities traded their distinctive ways of looking at the world and thus lost what is essential to them. Some things do not reveal themselves through empirical investigation: goodness, beauty, and metaphysical truth. To seek these through a scientific investigation is a category mistake. It is inherently contradictory, and, on a practical level, will not attract students. The means and ends of these disciplines, once clear and compelling, are now obscure and mundane.

Which would you rather engage: the story of the past or the motions of economic factors? The love of wisdom or a language game? Faith seeking understanding or the “varieties of religious experience”? The study of the latter of each pair may prove interesting, but none of these will grip a student’s attention as fundamentally as the former, because they do not seek that which we naturally desire to know: truth, in its deepest sense. The choice between a lucrative scientific field and a dubious pseudo-scientific one will not be hard for most students. In their attempt to keep students, the humanities have driven them away. Thus it is proved that Our Lord’s dictum that whoever tries to save his life will lose it applies not only to persons, but to institutions as well.

Nicholas Senz

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Nicholas Senz is Director of Religious Education at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Mill Valley, CA, a managing editor at Catholic Stand, and a Master Catechist. A native of Verboort, Oregon, Nicholas holds master's degrees in philosophy and theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA. He is on Twitter @nicksenz and his own blog, Two Old Books.

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