Education, Humanities, Religion, Universities

Another proposal to save the humanities (that won’t work)

Wednesday, 8th August 2018

I’m generally not a huge fan of Ross Douthat, but I don’t dismiss him on principle the way I do some other columnists. When he talks about the humanities, though, he makes me want to throw things at my computer screen. Today’s sober analysis (Oh, the Humanities) gave me some brief hope before crushing it at the end. He rightly notes the recent data showing the decline of the humanities (which really means the decline in the number of students willing to declare a humanities major). This extends to the social sciences closest to the humanities as well. To my surprise, he does not rush immediately to the usual conservative explanations for this decline – postmodernism and activism. He sees these as failed attempts to meet earlier declines in the humanities (I don’t agree, but at least he’s not giving us the same old tired, easy, and wrong political justification for rejecting analysis that involves class, race, gender, and other nonreductionist ways of thinking about being human).

But then he gives us his solution to the decline of the humanities:

But a hopeful road map to humanism’s recovery might include variations on those older themes. First, a return of serious academic interest in the possible (I would say likely) truth of religious claims. Second, a regained sense of history as a repository of wisdom and example rather than just a litany of crimes and wrongthink. Finally, a cultural recoil from the tyranny of the digital and the virtual and the Very Online, today’s version of the technocratic, technological, potentially totalitarian Machine that Jacobs’s Christian humanists opposed.

Yeah, I don’t think so. The “Jacobs” here, by the way, is Alan Jacobs, author of a new book, The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in An Age of Crisis. It is Douthat’s favorite kind of book – one which returns to a particular kind of Anglo-Catholic mid-century quasi-mysticism. It is humanities as the intellectual bulwark against the meaninglessness of technocratic society. If only we all submitted ourselves to the mysteries of the faith, were seduced by the smells and bells, we would be able to resist the corrosive effects of technology, hyper-individualism, and commerce. Universities should be teaching us that – the best of what has been thought and said, as Matthew Arnold put it. I was surprised in Jacobs’ book to not see more of the Inklings included, but those he does look at are Jacques Maritain, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, W. H. Auden, and Simone Weil. Come on, at least J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. And, oh yes, I know that in Jacobs’ list only two of the figures are English by birth, although Eliot really really wished he was. Still, the sensibility here is Anglo-Catholicism.

Anyway, that was a (post)war answer that Douthat wants to recover for a completely different time. I think it gave a lot of comfort after the insanity of war, but we have a different insanity today. He wants three things here. First, a serious academic interest in the truth of religious claims. You know, I think he’s not paying attention, because this does exist, just not the way he wants. He doesn’t mean religious, he means Christian, and he doesn’t mean just any Christian, he means a particular version of Christian. The up-side, perhaps, is that it is less obviously toxic compared to the version dominant in the US today – I will take some smells and bells over neo-fascism carrying a cross any day – but the thing is, it’s still an abdication of hard thinking about the world and its real material problems. The solution to injustice ends up being woolly and ineffective, and really does end up looking like the opiate of the masses. There is the study of religion today in the university, but not the study of theology except in specific places, and that too is in decline. Will a return to the study of religious claims save the humanities? I highly doubt it. Will the return to thinking about meaning within all areas of life, and reclaiming all forms of study as humanities areas, save the humanities? Hard to say, but I think it has a better chance.

His second recommendation is to have a “regained sense of history”, by which he means history as “repository and example”, not as all the things we did wrong. So, either a triumphalist history, in other words (what great things did we do in the past to make us so great today?) or a narrative of decline (how have the great things of the past been thwarted and perverted to leave us in the mess we are in now?). I know, both of these are unduly tendentious. Are they, though? Isn’t this what it amounts to, this call to basically whitewash the past? Doesn’t this just tell those who continue to suffer from structural problems in society that it’s their own fault, or it’s just the way things are, or its the metaphysical order of things for some to be greater and others to be lesser?

The third recommendation: a “cultural recoil from the tyranny of the digital and the virtual and the Very Online”. Hmm. I do wish he had circulated this column by mimeographed pamphlet instead of on the New York Times website, but be that as it may, I do wonder about the analysis of technology here as the thing that corrodes humanity. This was a popular idea throughout much of the 20th century – besides the figures in Jacobs’ book, we could look to Jacques Ellul, Heidegger, Marcuse, and a long list of others, at least some of whom would not share the religious underpinnings of the suspicion towards technology – but I’m not sure it’s such an easy position today. It is not just that we’re post-human cyborgs (although we are), that is, totally continuous with our technology at this point, so that it is hard to tell the difference, it is that the mid-century mysticism of the figures Douthat and Jacobs assumes that there is a separable core of humanness that is unaffected by the flows of technology (and for that matter, everything else – environment, commerce, etc.) and which has its rightful place when it dominates and controls those other things. It is no accident that most of the figures Douthat admires are British – the legacy of empire dies hard for the British, especially after the war, and it was a legacy of reason and character (read: the Christian virtues) rising above the chaos of the world and putting it in order (read: the colonies). It is a yearning for those good old days when the world was simple and everyone knew their place.

It’s not that world, and the fact is, it never was that world. The mid-century quasi-mysticism of the British intellectual elite was a response to forces of social and technological change that no longer fit into a nicely ordered world where the lower classes knew their place. It’s worth wondering whether, after the current age of activism in the face of rising irrationality in the world, when people are worn out with the struggle, if there will again be a retreat into quasi-mysticism as a personal justification of one’s own rightness. Douthat might get what he wants, if the November elections don’t give the US the “blue wave” that many are hoping for, and if in Britain there ends up being a hard Brexit rather than a soft one.

But this was all about the way to save the humanities. If Douthat’s solution is untenable, and I think it is, is there anything better? Sure, but there’s no easy fix. Douthat focused on what he sees as a retreat from meaning in the humanities. That’s what all three of his recommendations amount to. It is possible to address questions of meaning without a retreat to quasi-mysticism. It is possible, for instance, to bring the humanities into the rest of the university. I have always argued that all disciplines are humanities disciplines, because all disciplines at some point or at some level are concerned about how knowledge connects with human life, and how human life connects with the cycles and networks of non-human existence and emergence. I’m less interested in recovering some “true meaning of the human”, if that means finding some universal and eternal truths about being human (those don’t have a great track record when it comes to justice, freedom, equality and other things, even when we talk explicitly about them), and more interested in what comes next, what is created from the here and now, what it means even in dark times to find a new way of being human. And we have examples of this, all over the world. They show up in places of oppression and neglect.

Douthat’s humanism has no humans in it, no real ones at least. It has idealized ones, ones that never change, ones that exist in Eliot’s abstractions about time or Lewis’s myths, not humans that live in this world. And this, perhaps, is the real battle over the humanities – should it be following Arnold in looking at the best of what is thought and said, or should it be looking at real humans? Or, if both, what should the balance be? Douthat is clearly an Arnoldian, I am not. Douthat thinks the humanities need recovery, I think they need reinvention and new connections to every other area of thought.

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