There’s a crisis in the humanities. Have you heard?
There are many reasons for this – certainly our age is feckless and our college administrations more corporate than ever – but you can count me among those who say the “officer class” of the humanities themselves – the faculty, the literati, the public intellectuals, and artists – are most responsible for their decline.
At the worst, they are responsible for an elegant suicide pact (Philip Rieff’s phrase) that opened the gates to the barbarism and then tried to join the hordes. At their best, they have (with the exception of a few outliers) failed to make a compelling case for the cause they supposedly champion.
An essay in The Weekly Standard makes this point clear by critiquing a recent Harvard study on the decline of the humanities at Harvard.
The whole thing is well worth a read, and the critique fundamentally sound: “To restore the humanities, it is necessary to ensure that students acquire a common foundation in the history of the West and its literary, religious, philosophical, and artistic classics. These shaped our ideas and our institutions. Grappling with them refines our understanding of ourselves and our country.” – exactly what the humanities at the “top” universities still refuse to do.
But the killer observation comes near the end, so obviously true it’s a wonder it hasn’t been put on bumper stickers (emphasis added):
“It is also necessary to study other civilizations, but to do this seriously would require universities, instead of scuttling requirements, to institute substantial foreign language requirements. Nothing is so revealing of multiculturalism’s status as a political program rather than a research paradigm than the indifference of its proponents to language study.”
I don’t actually agree that a language requirement is necessary for a sufficient, and even exceptional, mastery of the humanities. But it’s certainly a great benefit – and the larger point is spot on. An educational institution truly dedicated to multiculturalism would be dedicated to language learning. American academia never did that.
Part of the reason is that a significant portion of administrations and faculties never really believed it. Part of the reason is sheer fecklessness among the proponents of multiculturalism: they were never really the sharpest of thinkers.
It may be too late for a true academic revival of the humanities, at least in this generation – but if it is to happen, we must embrace critical rigor and western civilization, rather than the politics of the moment.