Early this April, the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University sponsored a one-day, public symposium entitled “The Humanities and the Public Interest.” The symposium convened at nine o'clock on a Saturday morning and consisted of three sessions. The purpose of the event, in the words of a University press release, was “to re-examine the traditional association between the study of the humanities and the guardianship of humanistic values in the context of contemporary American society.” Peter Brooks, director of the Whitney Humanities Center and professor of the humanities at Yale, expanded on this: “The symposium will ask whether the case for the humanities can rest on traditional assumptions,” he was quoted in the press release as saying, “or whether a new rationale is needed if the humanities are to claim a major place in contemporary modes of thought and analysis.”

One might think this a tall order for a single day’s discussion. But the Yale community proved itself undaunted by the prospect. Even the symposium’s first session, which was devoted to “Technology in the Humanities, the Humanities in Technology,” drew an audience of over a hundred people; and the second two sessions—“The Social Mission of the Humanities” in the late morning and “A New Rationale for the Humanities?” after lunch—both filled the house with an audience of some three hundred or more. Each session featured two speakers and two respondents, with a member of the Yale faculty serving as moderator.

The symposium opened with some introductory remarks by Professor Brooks, who noted that the original impetus for the symposium was Secretary of Education William J. Bennett’s report on higher education in the humanities, To Reclaim a Legacy. Though it appears over Secretary Bennett’s name, the report is in effect a committee document. It reflects the findings and recommendations—and also, one feels, the concessions and compromises—of a study group that included some thirty teachers, administrators, and experts on higher education. Undertaken when Secretary Bennett was chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the thirty-two-page pamphlet was published by the Endowment in November, 1984, and has excited considerable consternation in the academy. In part, this is because the report criticizes the way in which the humanities are being taught—or left untaught—in many American colleges and universities. But more importantly, the report has been controversial because of the frankly conservative vision of the humanities that informs its analysis.

In brief, To Reclaim a Legacy defends precisely those “traditional assumptions” of the humanities that Professor Brooks hoped the Yale symposium would question. For himself, Professor Brooks declared his “profound disagreement” with the conclusions and general outlook of Secretary Bennett’s report, taking issue especially with what he described as its “intellectual fundamentalism.” Professor Brooks’s opening remarks were very brief, but in many ways they established the tenor for the day’s discussion; and since he identified Secretary Bennett’s report as the catalyst for the symposium, we may begin by taking a closer look at its argument.

To Reclaim a Legacy begins by reaffirming the traditional role of the humanities as the chief instrument of our cultural self-definition. Its presiding deity is Matthew Arnold, whose faith in the ennobling effects of high culture, of “the best that has been thought and said,” is patent throughout the report. Elaborating Arnold’s famous phrase, Secretary Bennett describes the humanities as “the best that has been said, thought, written, and otherwise expressed about the human experience.” The humanities are important, he writes, becaus

they tell us how men and women of our own and other civilizations have grappled with life’s enduring, fundamental questions: What is justice? What should be loved? What deserves to be defended? What is courage? What is noble? What is base? . . .

These questions are not simply diversions for intellectuals or playthings for the idle. As a result of the ways in which these questions have been answered, civilizations have emerged, nations have developed, wars have been fought, and people have lived contentedly or miserably.

Against the background of this faith in the importance of the humanities, the statistics that are marshaled in To Reclaim a Legacy cannot but give one pause. For example, according to Secretary Bennett, since 1970 the number of students majoring in the humanities has declined by about half, by nearly two-thirds in the case of history. Similarly, fewer than half of all colleges and universities now require foreign language study for the bachelor’s degree—down from ninety percent in 1966, we read—and a student can now graduate from seventy-five percent of our colleges and universities without having studied European history, from eighty-six percent without having studied classical Greece and Rome, and from seventy-two percent without having studied American literature or history. In other words, in the past two decades American higher education has suffered a wholesale flight from the humanities.

But the source of the controversy surrounding Secretary Bennett’s report does not lie in its litany of dispiriting statistics. The real issue lies rather in his prescriptions for “reclaiming” the legacy he finds threatened and, in the end, in his understanding of the substance and definition of that legacy. In the simplest terms, he calls for a reshaping of undergraduate curricula “based on a clear vision of what constitutes an educated person.” In his view, the goal of the humanities should be a “common culture” rooted in the highest ideals and aspirations of the Western tradition. Thus, while he urges the study of other cultures, he asserts that “the core of the American college curriculum . . . should be the civilization of the West . . .” Along the way, Secretary Bennett also criticizes the widespread tendency to politicize the humanities, to make them “the handmaiden of ideology,” as well as the penchant for radical subjectivism that would have us view the meaning and value of the humanities as intractably relative. Indeed, central to Secretary Bennett’s view of the humanities is an adherence to traditional criteria and standards for educational excellence and scholarly accomplishment. He believes, for example, that the tradition provides us with a generally recognized canon or body of “great works” that should form the basis for a humanistic education. And though he acknowledges that there will always be differences of opinion about the details of this canon, he insists that its basic lineaments are clear and ought to be preserved.

Secretary Bennett does not advocate restoration of a previous state of affairs.

Despite accusations to the contrary, Secretary Bennett does not advocate restoration of a previous state of affairs. He insists that the solution to the current crisis in the humanities “is not a return to an earlier time when the classical curriculum was the only curriculum and college was available to only a privileged few.” Given the charges of elitism and reaction that his proposals have occasioned, it seems well to emphasize this point. “American higher education today serves far more people . . . than it did a century ago,” Secretary Bennett writes.

Its increased accessibility to women, racial and ethnic minorities, recent immigrants, and students of limited means is a positive accomplishment of which our nation is justly proud. . . . But our eagerness to assert the virtues of pluralism should not allow us to sacrifice the principle that formerly lent substance and continuity to the curriculum, namely, that each college and university should recognize and accept its vital role as a conveyor of the accumulated wisdom of our civilization.

It is of course this final affirmation that has troubled Secretary Bennett’s opponents. For one thing, who decides what counts as “the accumulated wisdom of our civilization”? In Arnold’s terms, why should the humanities be concerned primarily with the best that has been thought and said? Does that not exclude a large portion of human experience? And does not that mass of experience deserve “equal time” in our institutions of higher education? Here again, who is to say what counts as “best”? Perhaps the Arnoldian injunction has been interpreted too narrowly, too “ideologically,” too exclusively? Furthermore, why should the humanities focus so intently upon the past? Why should they not concern themselves as much with the creation as with the preservation of culture? Such questions are at the heart of Professor Brooks’s “profound disagreement” and charge of “intellectual fundamentalism”—a charge that has been loudly echoed in the academy and that was to be advanced with great zeal that Saturday at Yale’s Whitney Humanities Center.

The symposium’s first session, however, on technology and the humanities was notable mostly for its lack of focus. Alan Trachtenberg, professor of American Studies and chairman of the American Studies Program at Yale, served as moderator. He opened the session by noting that the antagonism between technology and the humanities has become something of a “cliché.” The antagonism might be overcome, he suggested, if we were to invert the terms of the discussion and try to show how technology and the humanities are at bottom “interrelated systems” that point to a “common destiny.” This sounds lovely, of course—who wouldn’t wish to show that the rationalistic imperatives of modern science and technology are somehow compatible with the intrinsically value-laden life of the humanities? Unfortunately, though, Professor Trachtenberg failed to specify what it might mean for technology and the humanities to be “interrelated systems,” and in default of such specification his dream of their “common destiny” can be little more than wishful thinking. Clichés rarely provide one with an “interesting” interpretation of phenomena, but it sometimes happens that they express an obvious truth.

The principal speakers in this first session were Eking Morison.

The principal speakers in this first session were Eking Morison, professor emeritus at MIT, and Daniel C. Dennett, professor of philosophy at Tufts University. Professor Morison offered us some rather commonplace reflections on the disintegration of the “received scheme of things” in the modern world and on the academy’s accompanying shift away from the humanities as traditionally conceived toward more technical subjects. In a formidable phrase that captured the imagination of the other speakers, he called for the establishment of a “laboratory for the study of epistemological disorders” that could bring the humanities and technology together. Professor Dennett read part of a paper on ethics in which he discussed some of the special ethical quandaries with which our modern, technological society confronts us. He was especially concerned with analyzing the increased moral responsibility we feel in the face of our greater knowledge of the world’s miseries. Given that knowledge and our immense technical capabilities, he asked, where does our responsibility end? At the same time, he criticized our “misbegotten reliance” on technology and—in the session’s second arresting phrase—lobbied for “a moral first-aid kit” that would be more responsive to particular ethical problems.

The respondents added little to the discussion. Jules Chametsky, professor of English and director of the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities at the University of Massachusetts, wondered whether Professor Dennett’s proposals were capable of addressing “real problems” and made the novel observation that the prospect of a nuclear holocaust weighs heavily on modern consciousness. Professor Chametsky also offered us some wandering reflections on the moral wisdom expressed in Wallace Shawn’s play Aunt Dan and Lemon and concluded by noting that in “Reagan’s America” it is difficult to make the humanities “relevant.” The other respondent in the first session was Leo Marx, professor of American cultural history at MIT. Professor Marx began by reminding us how difficult it is to establish compelling criteria for moral action. He liked the notion of a “laboratory for epistemological disorders,” he told us, but in general felt that the proposals made that morning were too “sanitized,” too abstract and detached from real-life problems. He emphasized the “embedded” quality of moral problems, observing that for moral guidance most people rely not on abstract cogitation but on inherited belief systems. The real function of the humanities, he suggested, was not to provide us with “instrumental values” but to help us distinguish and discriminate among belief systems, to reflect critically on inherited values.

While the question of the relation between technology and the humanities is undoubtedly a pressing one, the contributions that morning rarely proceeded beyond assorted—and often dubious—platitudes, on the one hand, and fairly abstract speculation about ethics, on the other. The discussion became considerably more concrete in the second, and most publicized, session of the symposium, “The Social Mission of the Humanities.” This session featured a “dialogue” between Yale President A. Bartlett Giamatti and Norman Podhoretz, the well-known writer and editor of Commentary magazine; the respondents were Henry Rosovsky, professor of social science at Harvard, and Cornel West, associate professor of the philosophy of religion at the Yale Divinity School. It was in this session that the real issues facing the humanities in contemporary American society were most clearly set forth.

Mr. Podhoretz spoke first. The humanities, he said, cannot be justified on practical grounds.

Mr. Podhoretz spoke first. The humanities, he said, cannot be justified on practical grounds. Because the knowledge and culture they represent are “good in themselves,” their ultimate justification is simply their intrinsic value. From this it follows that the humanities cannot directly help us in the formulation of public policy; nor do they yield any particular political position; nor indeed does acquaintance with the humanities necessarily make us morally more upright or more humane—think only of the cultivated Nazi commandants who also savored Mozart. Echoing the sentiments expressed in Secretary Bennett’s report, Mr. Podhoretz identified the chief function of the humanities to be the creation of a “common culture.” Central to this view of the humanities is the idea of a more or less generally recognized canon of works that define the tradition. Mr. Podhoretz admitted that there will always be disagreement about the composition of the canon at, as it were, its edges; but he claimed that, at least until recently, there has been a widely shared consensus about the core body of works that constitute “the best that has been thought and said.”

In one sense, of course, this view of the humanities can be said to be exclusive or “elitist,” since it presupposes a rigorously defined notion of what it means to be an educated person. But in another sense, it is deeply democratic, for it locates authority not in any class or race or sex, but in a tradition before which all are equal. Indeed, as Mr. Podhoretz observed, to the extent that the humanities are crucial to the maintenance of civilized life, it is essential that as many people as possible be exposed to the canon: only thus is high culture preserved and transmitted. Furthermore, as the transmitter of the canon, of what Mr. Podhoretz described as our “intellectual patrimony,” the humanities have traditionally instilled a sense of the value of the democratic tradition we have inherited. And it is in this respect, he noted, that the humanities do have a political dimension, insofar as they rest upon a belief in the value and importance of Western culture and the civilization that gave birth to it.

With the social and political upheaval of the Sixties and early Seventies, Mr. Podhoretz continued, this entire conception of the humanities came under radical assault. Not only the idea of a common culture founded upon a recognized canon of great works, but the very notion of a politically autonomous realm of culture, was dismissed as naive, ethnocentric, or somehow repressive. Even the fundamental belief in the value of Western culture and civilization—the value, that is to say, of the whole humanistic enterprise—was undermined. And while it is true that the more extreme manifestations of this revolt have disappeared, Mr. Podhoretz maintained that the radical attitudes espoused in the Sixties and Seventies live on in attenuated form in the academy—even, or rather especially, in the humanistic disciplines, in the values and assumptions that typically inform the teaching and study of the humanities. For the most part, he said, a study of the humanities now tends at best to encourage a feeling of “mild contempt” for culture as traditionally defined and at worst to inspire outright hatred of our civilization and everything it stands for. And because of this sed-imented radicalism in the academy, the humanities, however much they may still add to an individual’s enlightenment and culture, no longer really contribute to the common good.

It cannot be said that Mr. Podhoretz’s diagnosis was sympathetically received. I overheard the idea of a “common culture,” for example, variously described as “moribund,” “imperialistic,” and “fascist.” It was considered to be equally “sexist,” I gathered, judging from the knowing looks that his use of the phrase “intellectual patrimony” occasioned. President Giamatti began by telling us that he found Mr. Podhoretz’s talk “internally contradictory,” for is there not a contradiction between asserting the essentially private nature of the humanities and then lamenting that they no longer conduce to the commonweal? In fact, though, President Giamatti’s charge depended upon distorting Mr. Podhoretz’s description of the humanities. It is one thing to say that the humanities cannot be justified on instrumental grounds, as Mr. Podhoretz did, quite another to say that they are a private affair entirely without social consequence, which no one but President Giamatti thought to propose.

The President of Yale University also came out strongly against the idea of a canon.

The President of Yale University, himself a scholar of Renaissance literature, also came out strongly against the idea of a canon. Instead, he thought that the humanities should encourage “modes of thinking that would discipline the imagination without pretending to direct it”—the idea being, I suppose, that it doesn’t much matter what one learns so long as one learns something. President Giamatti even claimed that this was the “Greek view” of education. Perhaps he meant the view current in contemporary Greece; certainly, the idea that education should seek “to discipline the imagination without pretending to direct it” is completely foreign to the teachings of Plato and Aristotle—think, for example, of the quite definite ideas that Plato had about what should and should not be taught in his discussion of education in the third book of The Republic. But leaving the Greek view of education to one side, President Giamatti’s reservations about the importance of the canon do help us understand his central charge against Mr. Podhoretz: that his view of the humanities is “solipsistic” and “spiritually selfish.” Basically, President Giamatti presented Mr. Podhoretz as an elitist who wanted to keep culture for himself. But as I understand it, the real difference between them was that Mr. Podhoretz wanted the humanities to be as widely available as possible, whereas President Giammatti was happy with what we might call universal schooling—the substance, the content, of what was taught was for him more or less up for grabs.

If nothing else, President Giamatti exemplified the strategy that Henry Rosovky, the session’s first respondent, identified as the prime imperative for academic administrators—“Be vague.” Professor Rosovsky, himself a social scientist, began his response with some amusing reflections on the difference between the humanities and the social sciences. For example, he found it “very humanistic” that there should be no formal papers at the session; and thinking over the discrepancy in income and prestige between faculty in the social sciences and the humanities, he couldn’t but wonder whether the true social mission of the humanities “may in fact be sacrificial.” About the humanities themselves, Professor Rosovsky suggested that their hallmark was “an eternal dissatisfaction,” that they ought in fact to “engender a kind of dissatisfaction,” and hence that they “should not be conservative.” Against Mr. Podhoretz’s vision of a “common culture,” Professor Rosovsky sided with President Giamatti in questioning the desirability of adhering to a canon and in extolling the ideal of a “multi-culture” nourished by disparate sources and traditions.

But the most articulate, as well as the most histrionic, response to Mr. Podhoretz came from the Yale Divinity School Professor Cornel West. Professor West’s performance, approximating the fervor of a political rally or revival meeting, clearly won the hearts and minds of the Yale audience. They thrilled to his rhetoric, punctuating his impassioned speech with enthusiastic applause. Professor West warmed up with a few words about “decolonization,” “the eclipse of European dominance” in the world, and the disintegration of “white, male, WASP hegemony” in the academy. (I had thought that WASPs were white by definition, but no matter: “white, male, WASP hegemony” has an edifying ring to it.) He pictured the evolution of the humanities in recent years as a reflection of a world-wide struggle for freedom against what it has pleased him to describe elsewhere as “the final fruits of bourgeois humanism: North Atlantic ethnocentrism.”[1]

In Professor West’s view, the “collapsing consensus” that Mr. Podhoretz spoke of tokened not decline but liberation. The Sixties, far from being a debacle, was a “watershed” for the humanities. For one thing, the “onslaught” of popular culture that began then has helped undermine elitist notions of high culture. Then, too, the attention lavished on the history and literature of blacks, women, peasants, and other groups has revealed the traditional canon to be the biased, ethnocentric construction that it is. Hence the “self-contempt” that Mr. Podhoretz said a study of the humanities tended to instill these days is really “a deeper self-critique” that mirrors important changes in the world (“the eclipse of European dominance,” etc.), changes that must be recognized and accommodated “if we are not to blow up the planet.”

I hasten to add, though, that in criticizing Mr. Podhoretz, Professor West by no means sought to align himself with President Giamatti. On the contrary, he criticized both men for their “lack of historical sense” and for their conservatism. (The term “conservative,” one notes, has degenerated into a negative epithet; in many circles, to describe something or someone as “conservative” is simply a politicized way of signaling one’s disapproval.) Distinguishing between the “battle-ridden neoconservatism” of Mr. Podhoretz and the “more charming” conservatism of President Giamatti, Professor West wondered whether the “dynamism” championed by President Giamatti didn’t at bottom merely represent “the recovery of highbrow classical humanism.” He can rest easy on that score, I think, even if it must be admitted that, in comparison with Professor West’s vision of the humanities, President Giamatti’s does seem conservative.

To my mind, however, the real clue to Professor West’s view came with his celebration of the incorporation of the New Left into the university. Among other things, he championed the New Left for creating “combat zones” that could challenge the entire ethos of bourgeois humanism that stands behind the humanities as traditionally conceived. And taking issue with Mr. Podhoretz’s severe criticism of the intellectual, moral, and political effects of the New Left, Professor West described writers like Herbert Marcuse and the post-World War II French Marxists as “the best of Western civilization.”

Now, it is worth pausing for a moment over Professor West’s identification of Herbert Marcuse and the “French Marxists” as representatives of “the best of Western civilization.” Just what do these individuals stand for? What have they contributed to furthering the fundamental principles of the humanities? Consider Louis Althusser, one of the most influential among the French Marxists whom Professor West admires. In an interview that he gave in 1968,[2] this example of the “best of Western civilization” explained that he had come to philosophy through his attempt to “become a Communist militant” during and after World War II. Having finally understood that “philosophy is fundamentally political”—more specifically, that it is a tool of “class struggle”— Althusser also realized that “it was not easy to resist the spread of contemporary ‘humanist’ ideology, and bourgeois ideology’s other assaults on Marxism.” Being an intellectual, a philosopher, made things especially difficult, he confided: “Proletarians have a ‘class instinct’ which helps them on the way to proletarian 'class positions.' Intellectuals, on the contrary, have a petty-bourgeois class instinct which fiercely resists this transition.” Most would agree, however, that Althusser succeeded rather well in overcoming the specified resistance, even if he finally fell prey to “contemporary humanist ideology” when he confessed to murdering his wife in 1980. In any case, it is quite clear that Althusser’s view of intellectual life is deeply inimical to the ideal of disinterested scholarly inquiry, an ideal that is at the heart of the humanist tradition.

Then there is Marcuse. One could turn to any number of his works for an introduction to his view of the value of the humanities—to the “Political Preface” that he added to the 1966 edition of Eros and Civilization, for example, where he calls for a thoroughgoing revolt against “the political machine, the corporate machine, the cultural and educational machine” of “affluent Western society.” What he calls for, in short, is a revolt against just those political, social, and intellectual traditions that define the humanistic endeavor. But perhaps the best précis of Marcuse’s thinking about such matters is to be found in his notorious 1965 essay, “Repressive Tolerance.”[3] Unable to deny that modern Western democracies offer their citizens an unparalleled degree of personal and political liberty, Marcuse is nevertheless able to denounce the West as essentially “totalitarian” by the simple device of declaring its brand of liberty “repressive” and a product of “false consciousness.” (What a versatile tool of obfuscation the notion of “false consciousness” has been, utterly exempt from subservience to mere “empirical reality”!) Indeed, he offers a simple formula for distinguishing between the “repressive tolerance” that expresses itself in the real world in such phenomena as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly and the “liberating tolerance” that would seem to occur chiefly in his imagination: “Liberating tolerance,” he writes, “would mean intolerance against movements from the Right, and toleration of movements from the Left.”

In brief, then, what Marcuse wants is “not ‘equal’ but more representation of the Left,” and he blithely sanctions “extralegal means if the legal ones have proved to be inadequate.” In one of the more extraordinary passages of the essay, Marcuse admits that “extreme suspension of the right of free speech and free assembly is indeed justified only if the whole of society is in extreme danger,” but continues immediately to note that

I maintain that our society is in such an emergency situation, . . . Different opinions and “philosophies” can no longer compete peacefully for adherence and persuasion on rational grounds: the “marketplace of ideas” is organized and delimited by those who determine the national and the individual interest. In this society, for which the ideologists have proclaimed the “end of ideology,” the false consciousness has become the general consciousness—from the government down to its last objects.

There is no escape, apparently—unless of course one happens to be blessed, as Marcuse believed himself to be, with the “true consciousness” that allows one to penetrate such nearly universal mendacity.

It is in the context of such passages from Professor West’s intellectual heroes, I believe, that we must understand the conception of freedom that underlies his view of the humanities. Like his heroes, Professor West finds the “ideology of pluralism” suspect because it “domesticates” radical thought. And like them, too, he questions the traditional “bourgeois” notion of the citizen as a “bearer of rights.” Instead, he lobbies for an idea of citizenship that would incorporate “collective action,” that would “undermine the liberal protection of rights” in favor of a more encompassing ideal. In response to an objection from Mr. Podhoretz, Professor West admitted that the New Left faced the “temptation” to nihilism and totalitarianism. But he did not seem to think the temptation very serious, and stressed the promise of freedom over such obstacles. Given the record of Utopian thinking in this century, however, Oscar Wilde’s boast that he could resist anything but temptation seems perhaps less a piece of wit than a solemn admonition.

Since the second session of Yale’s symposium on the humanities and the public interest had sought to dispose of the traditional rationale for the humanities, it seemed only appropriate that the final session should address itself to the question of formulating a new rationale for its discredited predecessor. The session was moderated by Professor Brooks, and featured presentations by Jonathan Culler, professor of English and comparative literature at Cornell University, and Vincent Scully, professor of the history of art at Yale. Responding to Professors Culler and Scully were Carolyn G. Heilbrun, professor of English at Columbia University, and J. Hillis Miller, professor of English and comparative literature at Yale.

Professor Culler began by criticizing the traditional rationale for the humanities as “universalis!” and “foundationalist.” The pretension to be “universalist,” he said, was primarily a political consideration: the humanities as traditionally conceived had presumed to speak universally to the human condition, but had in fact represented a narrow “white male” viewpoint. The attempt to be “foundationalist” involves epistemological considerations: the humanities had pretended to provide a foundation for both thought and values, but radical criticism in the last decades had exposed the fictional, and ideologically motivated, ground of that pretense. Professor Culler did not, however, attempt to formulate the new rationale for the humanities that he demanded, but merely offered a list of “divided imperatives” that he thought the humanities ought to heed. The list was fairly vague, even banal, unfortunately—the humanities ought to “assume unity” but also assert the value of other cultures, and so on—though it was full of appropriately combative rhetoric and wonderful-sounding, Nietzschean proclamations like his suggestion that thought really becomes valuable “only when it is extreme.”

Professor Culler began by criticizing the traditional rationale for the humanities as “universalis!” and “foundationalist.”

As an example of the kind of retrograde thinking he disparaged, Professor Culler cited a letter he had recently received from a dean at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, inviting him to lecture there. St. John’s offers a traditional “great books” curriculum—tailored to include classic developments in modern science and mathematics—and the dean, explaining the nature of the curriculum, described it as based on the “greatest books” of the Western tradition. This Professor Culler and his audience found quite risible, for after all what did the good dean from St. John’s mean by the “greatest books”? Only books written by “white Western males before 1900,” of course, something that for Professor Culler seemed to demonstrate how parochial—not to say ethnocentric and sexist—his correspondent’s notion of education must be. (For the record, one does read women authors and beyond 1900 at St. John’s.) Professor Culler never really specified his own idea of a good college curriculum. But one can bet that it wouldn’t be “ethnocentric”— indeed, it’s not even clear that it would be anthropocentric, since Professor Culler wondered in passing whether a view of the humanities based exclusively on a study of mankind wouldn’t be guilty of “speciesism.”

Mercifully, Professor Culler did not pursue this absurdity, though it was taken up by Vincent Scully, who began his talk by suggesting that what we needed was not so much a new rationale for the humanities as a new rationale for “animality.” Professor Scully then treated us to a slide show that opened, as such slide shows must, with a picture of the snow shovel Marcel Duchamp presented as a work of art in 1915. What won’t be taken as a work of art today, Professor Scully reflected, and then went on to share with his audience a number of other truly novel ideas: that the movies and television have emerged as the dominant style of modern life, for example, or that the artist must be “open-minded, pluralistic, poised for surprise.” One began to understand why Professor Scully is most successful in a lecture hall full of undergraduates: when entertainment with a dash of edification about the wonderfulness of art is the goal, one needn’t worry about the details.

Carolyn Heilbrun began her response on a melancholy note by observing that even now, even at a symposium on the humanities at Yale in 1986, she was the only woman on the panel. And I was surprised, I must confess, that Professor Brooks could have made this blunder. Surely he must have known that such a discrepancy in numbers would be held up for criticism. And as an academic administrator, he must also have known that the important thing in such situations is not to get the appropriate speakers for the occasion but to assemble a panel with the correct ethnic, social, and sexual mix. In any case, Professor Heilbrun went on to note that, though she was also the oldest person on the panel, it was the symposium’s youngest representatives, Professors Culler and West, who spoke for her. She, too, believed that college should “teach us to be dissatisfied” and that thought is really valuable only when it is extreme. In addition, as the panel’s official feminist, she also told us that it is the questions that women can ask about the canon that are the important questions. Why only women can ask them, or indeed, what the important ones might be, she didn’t really say. Nevertheless, one got a pretty good idea of the kind of thing she had in mind when she criticized Professor Scully for presenting Michelangelo’s depiction of the creation of man as representative of the human condition. After all, both God and Adam were—well, there’s no getting around it: they were male, and how universal can that be?

After all this, J. Hillis Miller cannot be blamed for failing to add much to the discussion: by this time, the fashionable positions had all been staked out. Professor Miller has proved himself an expert at creatively adapting fashionable positions, however, and in his talk he adroitly elaborated on several of the day’s themes. Above all, he warned against attempting simply to reimpose the traditional canon and proposed, as a kind of compromise, a curriculum in which canonical works would be read alongside “non-canonical” ones. What seemed crucial to him—and this was an idea that appealed to a good number of speakers that day—was not so much the teaching of particular texts or subjects as the teaching of “reading” in general.

The session, and the symposium, ended with a few comments and questions. Two comments in particular stuck with me. The first was Professor Heilbrun’s assertion that our reading of texts is inescapably “ideological.” And the second was Professor Brooks’s concluding observation that, because the humanities are “inherently subversive,” the recent developments in the academy that people like Secretary Bennett and Mr. Podhoretz bemoan ought actually be taken as signs of health. Together, the comments seemed to me to epitomize the proceedings in New Haven that day, and it may be well to conclude by considering them in a bit more detail.

The idea that all reading is “ideological” has gained great currency in literary studies in recent years. Among other things, it implies that we are imprisoned by our point of view, that our language, our social or ethnic background, or our sex inescapably condition the way we understand things. But are we so imprisoned? Granted that such contingencies influence our point of view, do they finally determine it? “Ideologies,” as Hannah Arendt observed years ago, are “isms which to the satisfaction of their adherents can explain everything and every occurrence by deducing it from a single premise.” In this sense, she notes, an ideology differs from a simple opinion “in that it claims to possess either the key to history, or the solution for all ‘riddles of the universe,’ or the intimate knowledge of the hidden universal laws which are supposed to rule nature and man.”[4] Yet is is precisely this sort of distinction that the contention that all reading is ideological dismisses. It dismisses, in other words, the crucial distinction between a point of view and an ideology, between an individual perspective on the world—which as a perspective is open to challenge, accommodation, correction—and an idée fixe. All in all, what we might call the universalization of ideology underscores the truth of Northrop Frye’s observation that “it is a curious tendency in human nature to believe in disillusionment: that is, to think we are nearest the truth when we have established as much falsehood as possible.”[5]

The idea that all reading is “ideological” has gained great currency in literary studies in recent years.

And in this context, since Matthew Arnold was invoked, whether as friend or foe, by practically every speaker at the Yale symposium, it is worth mentioning that in “The Function of Criticism” Arnold identifies “disinterestedness” as the chief mark of responsible criticism. Now in describing criticism as “disinterested,” Arnold did not mean that it presumes to speak without reference to a particular point of view—though critics of the idea often so caricature it. Rather, he meant a habit of inquiry that keeps “aloof from what is called ‘the practical view of things’ . . . [b]y steadily refusing to lend itself to any . . . ulterior, political, practical considerations about ideas.” In modern terms, Arnold looked to criticism to provide a bulwark against ideology, against interpretations that are subordinated to essentially political interests. Of course, the ideal of such disinterested criticism is rejected by many contemporary critics as naive (or worse), though it is not at all clear whether the criticism, they practice is more astute than Arnold’s or, alas, only more ideological.

Arnold is also useful in appreciating the oft-voiced contention that education ought to instill “dissatisfaction” or, to use Professor Brooks’s more dramatic formulation, that the humanities are “inherently subversive.” Such sentiments were so, widely shared at the Yale symposium that it was almost taken for granted that the function of education is not to impart knowledge but to subvert, to excite “dissatisfaction.” Behind this idea is a deep suspicion of authority, a suspicion that, in fact, would have us collapse the distinction between authority and authoritarianism. Yet it is a nice question whether the humanities can survive without recognizing the authority of tradition. It is indeed for this reason that, in “The Literary Influence of Academies,” Arnold praised the willing “deference to a standard higher than one’s own habitual standard in intellectual matters” as the result of a “sensitiveness of intelligence.” And thus it is, too, that Hannah Arendt suggested that “conservatism, in the sense of conservation, is of the essence of the educational activity, whose task is always to cherish and protect something.” “The real difficulty in modern education,” Arendt wrote,

lies in the fact that, despite all the fashionable talk about a new conservatism [Arendt was writing in 1958], even that minimum of conservation and the conserving attitude without which education is simply not possible is in our time extraordinarily hard to achieve. There are very good reasons for this. The crisis of authority in education is most closely connected with the crisis of tradition, that is with the crisis in our attitude toward the realm of the past. . . . The problem of education in the modern world lies in the fact that by its very nature it cannot forgo either authority or tradition, and yet it must proceed in a world that is neither structured by authority nor held together by tradition.[6]

“Neither structured by authority nor held together by tradition”—in the end, this would seem to describe the goal of the “new rationale” for the humanities as envisioned at Yale. And of course the real casualties are the students and junior faculty, who often haven’t the foggiest notion of the value of the tradition they have been taught to disparage. The senior faculty are at least old enough to recognize what it is they are abandoning. Champions of the “new rationale” like to pretend that they are merely thinking more critically than the tradition had allowed. In fact, though, they have as often as not degenerated from criticism to nihilism. Indeed, the whole situation reminds one of nothing so much as of Turgenev’s portrait of the nihilist Bazarov in Fathers and Sons:

“A nihilist,” said Nikolai Petrovich. “That comes from the Latin nihilnothing, I imagine; the term must signify a man who . . . who recognizes nothing?”

“Say—who respects nothing,” put in Pavel Petrovich, and set to work with the butter again.

“Who looks at everything critically,” observed Arcady.

“Isn’t that exactly the same thing?” asked Pavel Petrovich.

“No, it’s not the same thing. A nihilist is a person who does not take any principle for granted, however much that principle may be revered.”

The humanities had once striven to inculcate the ability to think critically, that is, to enable one to discriminate between ideology and a point of view, between legitimate authority and authoritarianism, between genuine freedom and its tyrannical parody. The “new rationale” propounded at Yale would have us believe that thinking critically is indistinguishable from Bazarov’s nihilism.

  1. See his “Afterword: The Politics of American Neo-Pragmatism,” in Post-Analytic Philosophy, edited by Cornel West and John Rajchman, Columbia University Press, 1985, pp. 259-275. Go back to the text.
  2. “Philosophy as a Revolutionary Weapon,” reprinted in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, translated by Ben Brewster, Monthly Review Press, 1971, pp. 11-22. Go back to the text.
  3. Reprinted in A Critique of Pure Tolerance, by Robert Paul Wolff, et alia, Beacon Press, 1969, pp. 81-123. Go back to the text.
  4. The Origins of Totalitarianism, Harcoutt Brace Jovanovich, 1973, seriatim, pp. 468, 159. Go back to the text.
  5. “The Realistic Oriole: A Study of Wallace Stevens,” in Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology, Harcourt Brace & World, 1963, p. 244. Go back to the text.
  6. “The Crisis in Education,” reprinted in Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought, Penguin, 1978, pp. 192-3, 195. Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 4 Number 10, on page 23
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