I was recently asked by a student group at my university to participate in a panel discussion about the humanities. Having been asked the rather loaded question, “why are the humanities needed more now than ever?,” the panelists were expected to defend the humanities, presumably against some charges or enemies that are particularly contemporary. But like the dinner guest who spends the whole night telling everyone what he would do if he were hosting the party, I’m afraid I made myself a somewhat obnoxious and ungrateful guest that afternoon. Instead of answering the question asked of me, I played at Socrates, questioning the earnest young people’s question.
I understand very well what motivates this sort of question. Young people studying the humanities are under constant pressure, from family, friends, the media, and even their own schools, to turn their attention to useful pursuits, the pursuits that do something. Since the humanities do not seem to do anything, why should students bother with it? The standard response to this worry is to stress the practical benefits of studying philosophy, literature, history, and the classics. Students develop “soft” skills like critical thinking, clear communication, and persuasive argumentation (I’m not sure what makes refinement of thought and composition so soft, but I’ll admit to having made this case once or twice). These skills help young people get jobs, keep jobs, and, most importantly it would seem, earn raises and promotions.
I understand the question, but the question also seems to betray a deficiency in the “soft” skill of thinking to the bottom of things. Analyzing the question just a bit reveals at least two related assumptions, neither of which should be taken for granted.
First, that the humanities are needed. Of course, to make sense of this claim, we would need to understand what the humanities are, or at least what we mean by the word, as well as what the humanities accomplish to determine who can benefit from them.
Second, that there is something special or unique about the present moment, which uniqueness also makes the humanities more needful now than previously. An ancillary assumption seems to be embedded in this one, namely, that the present moment is uniquely dangerous, bad, or harmful.
If I’m right about these assumptions, we’d need to understand both why the humanities are needed and what makes the present moment unique before moving on to show why we need the humanities even more than we did previously. Accordingly, my task was to show that the humanities are needed and to show that the special negative quality of the present moment is commensurate with their greater need or value today. This task is not that much different from the task all humanist professors are called to regularly when they are expected to promote their disciplines to current and future students, their parents, administrators, and, increasingly, the general public. Indeed, I am expected increasingly to be on as many social media platforms as possible extolling the practical benefits of the humanities and showing how my special expertise can save the world if people take it up, too.
If this was my task, I simply couldn’t deliver. I couldn’t answer the question, not because the ten minutes the students afforded me were insufficient (though they were), nor because I lack the breadth and depth of knowledge needed to answer it (though I likely do), nor because my sizeable audience was insufficiently receptive (thankfully, they were not only receptive, but genuinely curious and kind). I couldn’t because I don’t accept the assumptions; I can’t explain why something I don’t believe is true.
I do, however, accept what I suspect is the spirit of this question, namely that something is amiss today generally, with our colleges and universities specifically, and with our relationship to humanist learning and scholarship. Why then reject the question and its assumptions?
What I See Around Me
Let me start with the present moment. Is it unique and uniquely dangerous? Let me describe in shamefully brief outline what I see around me today.
Politically, I see seemingly unbridgeable polarization: moderates condemned as extremists; extremists praised as defenders of freedom and justice; and ideologues persuading young people to engage in all sorts of depraved behavior, not the least of which involves violent protest, some of which has been deadly. I see elected officials spending an inordinate amount of time, when they are not spending an inordinate amount of money, shouting at rather than listening to each other, let alone to their constituents. I see a widespread if not complete rejection of civil and respectful political discussion.
Culturally, I see something of an upside-down world: a celebration of the ugly and grotesque, and a rejection of any claim to genuine beauty; banality posing as profundity; and profundity condemned as elitist or, worse, oppressive. I see language misused and abused, sometimes forgivably through ignorance of the meaning of words (like when people use “literally” figuratively), but too often maliciously, as if to reject the possibility of stable communication. As Josef Pieper put it, this is language as flattery, a manipulation that abandons the purpose of language to communicate something truthful about the world. In short, I see a culture of junk, not only a culture that produces junk (as Neil Postman argued, all cultures do that), but one that celebrates it, going so far as to make itself junk, worthy of nothing other than being tossed.
Morally, I see a tyrannical disregard for the perennial moral things: virtue, self-sacrifice, and genuine love, that is, the giving love that takes nothing, but is grateful to receive. In morality’s place I see egoism, selfishness, and narcissism; I see a pathological preoccupation with self that manifests itself in hatred of goodness, as if being decent—or trying to be—is simple-minded and weak. Not only is the good guy no longer the hero; he is the joke.
In intellectual life, I see fragmentation, with scholars struggling to speak with each other because of overspecialization. I see university and college programming that treats learning like a buffet where consuming a bit of this or that, e.g., a few French fries and spring rolls, is as good and healthful as eating a beautifully prepared and composed meal using only the highest quality ingredients and based on knowledge of nutrition. I see university administrators and professors afraid to tell students what they should know and instead pander to the capricious and ever-shifting interests of the day. Students are no longer learners; they are knowledge producers.
In short, I see a world embracing relativism—that perennial poison that obstructs human flourishing wherever and whenever it appears, that same relativism that is so easily refuted (see Plato’s Protagoras, for instance) and has been refuted time and again, but that keeps returning despite its patent illogic. That is to say, I see much around me worth criticizing and rejecting.
To Struggle Against Folly is Human
So, why don’t I think our present moment is uniquely dangerous? It is because the present moment has always been woefully imperfect. Today might be worse than yesterday (I think it is), which may have been better than the day before, but that does not make this point in history particularly special. I don’t mean to say we shouldn’t hope to do better, but this hope should be mitigated by the awareness that to struggle against folly is human—always has been, always will be. There is nothing unique about present-day folly—indeed, I refuse to give even that much power to contemporary fools, whose stupidity is so derivative as to be uninteresting. Gorgias was fascinating; Derrida, not so much. Professor I. Hate-Truth, Distinguished Chair in Relativist Studies at Moral Depravity U? He’s not even worth naming.
Indeed, the expectation that we could transform the world to rid it of error and human imperfection is no small part of the problem. This is what Eric Voegelin used to call the “immanentization of the eschaton,” i.e., the presumption to bring into the finite world some perfect end state. This view hopes to pull paradise down to earth, thereby making the finite world, including the humans in it, conform to the will of some relatively small group of powerful humans. I’ll gladly leave this to historians to establish, but it seems to me that the attempt to do so has always ended very badly.
Let me now turn my attention to the assumption about the humanities. Are they needed? Can the humanities still be of great benefit in this world even if it isn’t uniquely harmful?
If, by the humanities, we mean the disciplines we find in universities, like philosophy, history, literary studies, and the classics, then I’m not terribly confident. Not because I don’t think highly of these disciplines in principle (as a philosophy professor and chair of a humanities department, how could I not?), but because I think that’s asking too much of scholars. I’m quite certain that even the best of us won’t make the world much better, let alone save it.
What’s worse, there’s no guarantee that professional humanists can’t be influenced by the rot that surrounds us all. A Ph.D. in philosophy, for instance, is not some magic amulet protecting its holder from relativism, let alone from error and illogic. Indeed, I fear it can be the opposite. Clever and refined relativism is more depraved and dangerous than the run of the mill variety, just as highfalutin error and illogic tends to be believed more often than the plain sort.
In contrast, if, by the humanities, we mean something like free and docile study that is unencumbered by political ideologies, that is, the study that turns away from what Josef Pieper called the workaday world to look at human nature itself and all that relates to it, including things divine, then there may be hope, not that the world could be saved or redeemed by humanist study (there’s only one man to do that), but that some humans in the world might be a bit more human for having bothered to study the human condition.
I don’t believe this is what is meant when questions about the value of the humanities are asked, but it should be, because this is the only sense of the humanities that matters. In this sense, the humanities refer to what the ancients called leisure (“skole” in ancient Greek, from whence the English word “school” is derived—the derivation isn’t ironic, but the current state of schooling is). As Josef Pieper points out, leisure is what it means to think and speak freely, without a view to political expedience or utilitarian function. A university degree in a humanist discipline is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition of such freedom.
What’s more, leisure is not strictly speaking needed, not like food, drink, and shelter. This sort of study doesn’t help us survive, but it does help us flourish. I may sound rather Aristotelian here, but the claim I’m making is that by studying what the human is I might be able to learn how I should be, not just what I should do, and certainly not how I might get a job or a raise. If that is worthwhile, and I believe it is, it is so today as much as yesterday and tomorrow. That we face idiosyncratic problems isn’t uninteresting, of course, but it doesn’t change the basic human task captured so well by the ancient Delphic oracle: know thyself. However, self-knowledge isn’t self-indulgent or self-aggrandizing; it is knowledge of human nature, and all that matters to it: the true, the just, the beautiful, and, above all, God.
Republished with gracious permission from Crisis Magazine (July 2018).
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 See Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power by Josef Piper.
 See Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman.
 See The New Science of Politics by Eric Voegelin.
 See Leisure: The Basis of Culture by Josef Piper.
 See Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle.