To justify the Classics and Humanities, some have tried to argue that they remain a practical option for students, couching their praise in terms readily amenable to the outcome-focused mentalities of today’s high-achieving students. But does reducing the Classics and Humanities to a series of “practical” stepping-stones do the subjects any justice?
Colleges and universities have numbered among some of the hardest-hit institutions throughout the recent pandemic. However necessary the temporary suspensions of in-person classes and campus activities, the uncertainty caused by COVID-19 has compounded the mounting monetary and enrollment concerns that many universities had already been facing for some time. In some extreme cases, schools have been forced to close their doors permanently. Almost all are preparing to make tough calls as they reconsider what is and isn’t essential to the university experience should the costs brought on by the shut-downs prove too great a financial strain. In many cases, it is the Classics and Humanities that will feel increased pressure to justify themselves as essential players when the university administrations go to the cutting board.
To offset this, some have tried reminding us in recent weeks why taking courses in the Classics and Humanities remains a practical option for students. But this is nothing new. Attempts to justify these disciplines have long appealed to the practical benefits they hold. All too familiar are the click-bait blog posts and U.S. News and World Report articles that couch their praise for the Classics and Humanities in terms readily amenable to the outcome-focused mentalities of today’s high-achieving students and, perhaps more importantly in many cases, their equally high-expectations parents: “Study the Classics and stand out in your law and medical school applications,” they promise, or “Pursue the Humanities and prove to employers that you are equipped to handle complexity on the job!”
Rather than approaching the subjects for their own sake and on their own terms, these models present the Classics and Humanities as an alternative means of getting a leg-up in the rat race from point A to B that has steadily come to define much of modern education. Notwithstanding the occasional student who uncovers a passion or talent they didn’t know they possessed, most come away from their passing brush with the Classics and Humanities with just what they need to diversify their resume: namely, a superficial level of cultural fluency, typically flavored by whatever ideological talking points happen to be current. While considerations of practicality are well and good, and admittedly necessary in the competitive and increasingly uncertain world awaiting today’s graduates, all of this begs the question: does reducing the Classics and Humanities in such ways—to a series of “practical” stepping-stones, or a vehicle for imparting ideologies of one stripe or another—do the subjects any justice?
For the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, to derive our justification for the arts (here understood as the Classics and Humanities) from their functional utility or political expediency was to assign to them a “shameful destiny,” devoid of any higher orientation. How is it, Dostoevsky asks, that we can be so quick to determine what is or isn’t useful? How can we determine clearly and independently what must be done to arrive at the ideal of all our desires, to achieve everything that humanity wishes and towards which it aspires? As conceived by the Great Books programs of the mid 20th century and the Latin-based curriculums that preceded them, the Classics and Humanities provided a point of reference from which we could begin to approach such enduring questions. Based on a broad sampling of the great works of art and literature, of history and philosophy, these programs offered an educational model that was concerned with the formation of the mind and spirit above all else. Though practicality was not left out of the picture entirely, the primary end of such an education was the composite human person: rich first in terms of being, and second in terms of whatever might flow from this. Such an education provided a point of entry into the formidable stream of culture that preceded those bewildered and often perplexed youths who, even in our age of pervasive relativizations and neutralizations, continue to seek after meaning and purpose in life. Although the Classics and Humanities did not hold out a straightforward or clearly quantifiable answer to these perennial questions, they did promise to equip the receptive student with the means of joining the so-called “Great Conversation,” of grasping the continuing relevance of that dialogue and perhaps even of contributing to it in some way. Today, as we have come to view the Classics and Humanities as just another means to an end, or worse as things to be made examples of—useful insofar as they affirm our sense of historical superiority to those who came before us—much of this more traditional conception has been lost. As they attempt to navigate the mounting complexity and great unknowns that define our times, students who are no longer afforded the initiation into the culture that the Classics and Humanities once provided are like an Odysseus without an Athena; Dante without the poet Virgil. These young persons have a great task ahead of them, but few helpers to guide their way.
Society too suffers from the consequences brought on by sacrificing the heart and soul of our cultural inheritance on the altars of expediency and practicality. Just as the Classics and Humanities provide us with a point of reference from which we can entertain the formidable questions of human destiny posed by Dostoevsky, they also allow us to evaluate all of those eminently practical fields that most students are drawn to for obvious reasons. Law and Medicine, Economics and Business, Engineering and the other STEM fields—of what good are these if they are removed from the larger questions of life and human experience posed by the Classics and Humanities, from the recurring problem of “everything that humanity wishes and towards which it aspires?”
In his much-quoted letter to the editor of the Harvard Crimson, the Classics professor Alston Hurd Chase criticized what he saw as an increasing tendency within the humanistic disciplines to abandon this evaluative role in an attempt to imitate the more dynamic technical-scientific fields:
Minute research is necessary in science, and is sometimes useful or, as in chemical warfare, fatal to society. In the field of the arts however, this type of research is absolutely inappropriate . . . yet the arts have been striving for years to imitate the sciences.
As Hurd realized, the Classics and Humanities run the risk of abdicating their unique position in a bid to justify themselves to the modern mind, which is biased in favor of technical mastery and specialization. In doing so, the sacred space wherein the humanities have been privileged to stand apart will be vacated. It is thus that our vaunted scientific accomplishments, neutralized and divorced from the critical, discerning sense of life instilled by the Classics and Humanities, come to stride that precarious line between sometimes useful and, “as in chemical warfare,” sometimes fatal to society. The markedly more traditional view advocated by Hurd looked, as we have suggested, to the formation of the whole person:
I believe . . . that a university is an institution supported by society primarily for the purpose of educating young men and young women to take a useful and happy part in the life of their community, of their country, and of the world.
To subordinate this ideal to other purposes was for Hurd a great betrayal. Moreover, it was and still is dangerous. As Hurd’s letter makes clear, his was an age when democratic institutions hung in the balance; when the need for men and women capable of engaging in “the art of thought” was more pressing than ever. Is this any less true in our own turbulent time, when our cultural and political discourse seems to have nearly broken down, misinformation runs rampant, and civil society appears on the verge of imploding at word of the next crisis? As the former Yale professor William Deresiewicz notes in Excellent Sheep, his critical essay on the state of American higher education, the Classics and Humanities are essential to the maintenance of free institutions and, ultimately, free and sovereign persons:
Anyone who tells you that the sole purpose of education is the acquisition of negotiable skills is attempting to reduce you to a productive employee at work, a gullible consumer in the market, and a docile subject of the state. What’s at stake, when we ask what college is for, is nothing less than our ability to remain fully human.
As its name indicates, it is the humanistic tradition and the sense for life that it engenders that outfits students most fully for this task.
Like Hurd and Deresiewicz, we have spoken here not only of the ways in which the Classics and Humanities can enrich the individual life, but also of their capacity for rejuvenating society at large, of reorienting it to what it has forgotten. Such language—rejuvenating and reorienting—evokes the wasteland motif of Arthurian myth and the accompanying curse of the “wounded king,” which can only be lifted by the restoring hero who knows how to “ask the right question.”
If, as the modernist poet T.S Eliot recognized, our collective cultural life has been reduced to a veritable wasteland in its own right, wrecked by the desecrations of deconstruction and the assault of ideology on truth, then surely it is because no one knows how to ask the right questions any longer. To again evoke the words of Dostoevsky, we have forgotten how to ask those questions that necessarily precede the achievement of “everything that humanity wishes and towards which it aspires.” Luckily, the Classics and Humanities are still out there. Whether discussed in the lauded lecture halls of the university or piled up in the dusty corners of old bookstores, they continue to hold out for those intrepid souls who know how to ask the right questions and are thus capable of rediscovering their hidden gold. As the cultural historian Jacques Barzun observed:
Young men and young women continue to be born with an insatiable desire to know. These marked souls manage somehow, in spite of all they see around them, to make themselves into educated persons. Literature, philosophy and the arts, religion, political theory and history become the staples on which they feed their minds. And with slight variations in diet expressive of different temperaments, they ultimately come into possession of the common knowledge and the common tongue.
The view of education given currency by Barzun’s words conceives of it as a life-long enterprise—a hero’s journey of self-discovery that, properly undertaken, cannot simply be shelved after four short years. Indeed, the four years we allow our students to spend at the university could hardly even begin to scratch the surface. And yet, four years have to suffice. As Hurd maintained, the function of the university was not to generate endless streams of scholars commenting on dead themes, but to send out into the world men and women capable of confronting the challenges of their day. Men and women who know how to ask the right questions. Accomplishing this task is what justifies sending off our “best and brightest” in the first place. Eventually, it is supposed, they will return from the lecture halls and libraries and make good on the special task with which they have been entrusted.
In his work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the mythologist Joseph Campbell—a giant of Classical and Humanistic learning in his own right—spoke of the heroic figure who, after setting out on a perilous but wondrous journey of inner and outer discovery, inevitably returns with the “boon” in tow:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Whether we speak of the “domestic” concerns of the fairy-tale or the “world-historical” events recorded in the epic cycles, the heroic personage is that soul who seems specially called to embark on the “difficult and dangerous task of self-discovery and self-development,” symbolically represented as a going out, or a crossing of the threshold. The boon to be gained, the end which justifies the journey, often proves to be the source of power capable of regenerating the hero’s society, or the means by which some symbolical deficiency afflicting the world can finally be cured. The educational journey of the student, conceived of in terms of arduous but rewarding self-discovery, as well as an opportunity to ask the restoring question, mirrors the hero cycle that Campbell describes. But the reduction and reconfiguration of the Classics and Humanities into “practical” subjects fashioned after the sciences, or as vehicles of political proselytizing, threatens to preclude the possibility of any such conception, and thus to derail the promise that the Humanities and Classics hold—not just for those fortunate enough to study them, but for the world at large.
As I conclude, one final thought is warranted. It has been said that the Great Tradition “patiently endures,” ready as ever to reveal itself to the one who is equipped with the right question. Thus, it follows that no matter what stage of life we find ourselves in, whether student or life-long learner, we ought to continue to ask and feed our imaginative capacities. If by doing so we could “dredge up,” as Campbell said, “something forgotten not only by ourselves but by our whole generation or our entire civilization,” then we may yet herald the return of the boon-bringer—“a personage of not only local but world-historical moment.” Then we may find that the wasteland has at last been restored, and that the ideal of all our perennial aspirations can finally be extracted from the fog that presently obscures it.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
John Kroger, “Can College Be Saved in the COVID-19 Era?,” Inside Higher Ed.
Russ Castronovo and Susan Gillman, “A ‘Radical’ Plan to Rethink Doctoral Admissions in the Wake of Covid-19,” The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation 1860-1865, ( Princeton University Press, 2020) pp.83 .
Robert Maynard Hutchins, The Great Conversation: The Substance of a Liberal Education
(Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952).
Alston Hurd Chase, The Function of a University, (Orig. “Letter to the editor of the Harvard Crimson, 1934″).
William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the way to a Meaningful Life, (Free Press, 2014) pp.79.
Jacques Barzun, Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning, (Univ. Chicago Press 1991) , pg.215.
Richard Gamble, The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What it Means to be an Educated Human Being, ( ISI Books, 2007).
Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, ( Fontana Press, 1993) pg.16-25.
The featured image is “The Education of the Virgin” (1656) by Michaelina Wautier (1604-1689) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.