Editors’ note: The following is an edited version of remarks delivered for The New Criterion’s fifth annual Circle Lecture on September 28, 2023.
Back in the 1980s, an editor at Harvard University Press had the bright idea of asking some of the leading lights of the day to write their own version of a philosophical dictionary, modeled on Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique (1764). The project petered out rather quickly, presumably because there turned out to be so few scholars around who had the breadth and wit to write such a book. But the great sociologist Robert Nisbet rose to the challenge and produced a philosophical dictionary, with the saucy title Prejudices, that was infinitely more charming and enlightening than its French model. It appeared in 1982.
Among the topics appearing in the table of contents for Nisbet’s dictionary is the term “Humanities.” The essay on that subject provides us with an excellent starting place for the present inquiry. It begins as follows:
A faculty member was accosted by a colleague with the words, “I understand you spoke against the humanities the other day at faculty meeting.” “No indeed,” was the reply. “I love the humanities. I would die for the humanities. All I asked was, what the hell are the humanities?”
The question is pertinent at this moment in history when the humanities are lying at death’s door. Their condition is known by the fact that they are receiving eulogies throughout the land. University presidents, foundation executives, newspaper editors, corporate spokesmen, Senators, Representatives, movie and television stars, all fill the air with their pious affirmations of civilization’s absolute dependence upon the humanities.
Once it was precisely this way with the classical languages. They died, while testimonials to their indispensability lay thick as cherry blossoms on the ground. The official death of Greek and Latin in this country might be put at 1920, the year of publication of a book filled with eulogies to the study of these languages by the same types who today are at work on the humanities. . . .
Greek and Latin began to die at about the time that the word classics became popular. In the days when the two languages flourished in America, no one was heard saying, “I study classics.” What one studied was Greek or Latin. . . . But [by the time] one says, “I am majoring in classics,” the processes of squish and slush have begun to operate. What happened to Greek and Latin subsequently happened to modern foreign languages in the curriculum, and today the word humanities conceals the same processes of squish and slush.
A rather gloomy Gus, our friend Robert Nisbet. And yet it is hard to contest the essential truth in what he says. Even in his observations about “classics” he proved prophetic. At Princeton, it is now possible to graduate with a degree in classics and not to have studied Greek or Latin at all. Quod erat demonstrandum! Nisbet might proclaim, confident that a Princeton classics major wouldn’t understand what the hell he was talking about.
And it is striking how much of Nisbet’s bill of accusations against the humanities, delivered in 1982, still applies very precisely, over four decades later: the domineering status of political ideology, obsession with questions of race and sexuality and identity, the steady preoccupation with oppression and marginalization and historical grievance, the celebration of the transgressive, the tyranny of overspecialization.All of this was firmly in place in the faculties of our “best” institutions during the Eighties.
I’ll return to Nisbet later in my remarks. But for now, let’s consider his plaintive question: “what the hell are the humanities?”
Given the reams and reams written about the humanities, mostly in celebration, it is astounding to discover how little attention is given to this fundamental question. More often than not, we fall back upon essentially bureaucratic definitions that reflect the ways in which the modern research university parcels out office space. The commonest definition in circulation is a long sentence—a run-on sentence, to be precise—from the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965, the congressional legislation that established the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts.
As you might expect, this definition is wanting in a certain grace. But here it is:
The term “humanities” includes, but is not limited to, the study of the following: language, both modern and classical; linguistics; literature; history; jurisprudence; philosophy; archaeology; comparative religion; ethics; the history, criticism, and theory of the arts; those aspects of social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods; and the study and application of the humanities to the human environment with particular attention to reflecting our diverse heritage, traditions, and history and to the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life.
An inspiring definition. But doesn’t it assume that we already understand the thing being defined? What, otherwise, are we to make of “those aspects of social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods”? A long list of particulars does not answer the question; it merely evades it.
It is a bad sign that defenders of the humanities become tongue-tied so quickly when a layman asks what the humanities are and why we should value them. Sometimes the answers are downright laughable. At a meeting of the American Council of Learned Societies a number of years ago in Philadelphia, the subject was “Reinvigorating the Humanities,” but the discussion was anything but invigorating. Consider this witticism from the then-president of the University of Chicago, who was soon to become the president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation: “When the lights go out and our friends in science haven’t developed a national energy policy, they’ll be out of business. We, with a book of poems and a candle, will still be alive.”
Well, isn’t that special? This is the kind of airy-fairy, self-congratulatory narcissism that gives the humanities a bad name. And when the president of the council addressed herself to the big, obvious question—just what will it take to reinvigorate the humanities?—the answer was predictable. What was needed was, in the immortal word of the great American labor leader Samuel Gompers, more: more money, more fundraising attention from university leaders, more support from Congress, more jobs for professors.
What ever happened to that book of poems and a candle?
Things have gotten much worse in recent years, as was pointed out in a much-noticed article by Nathan Heller in The New Yorker of February 27, 2023, entitled “The End of the English Major.” The article opens with the observation that “Enrollment in the humanities is in free fall at colleges around the country. What happened?” I was reminded of Mike Campbell’s famous quip in The Sun Also Rises, when asked how he went bankrupt. “Two ways,” Mike says. “Gradually and then suddenly.” Gradually, because the enrollment decline has been taking place for a long time, as Robert Nisbet’s lamentation shows. But the recent free fall has been disconcertingly sudden, and of a much higher order of magnitude.
The data on this count are plentiful. According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators project, from 2012 to 2020 the number of humanities majors at Ohio State’s main campus fell by 46 percent. Tufts lost nearly 50 percent of its humanities majors, and Boston University lost 42 percent. Notre Dame ended up with half as many as it started with, while suny Albany lost almost three-quarters. Vassar and Bates—both well-regarded liberal-arts colleges—saw their numbers of humanities majors fall by nearly half.
But the pace of bankruptcy has accelerated even further. In 2022, Heller reports, a survey found that only 7 percent of Harvard freshmen planned to major in any field in the humanities, down from 20 percent in 2012 and nearly 30 percent during the 1970s. “We feel we’re on the Titanic,” a senior professor in the Harvard English department told Heller.
Perhaps the saddest moment in Heller’s article comes in an interview with a distinguished Columbia English professor, who blames the decline partly on the culture’s internet obsession, which has crowded out ordinary reading (including, he admits, his own reading, as he holds up his well-used iPhone), but mainly on the loss of financial support for the humanities, which he goes on to equate with the decline of democracy. No matter how bad things get, it seems there is always an ample supply of delusionary self-importance among humanities professors.
There is always an ample supply of delusionary self-importance among humanities professors.
By way of contrast, consider the deflationary comments of the literary scholar Stanley Fish, who is not without his faults—he will surely spend a lot of time in purgatory for his role in creating the monstrous Duke University English department—but who provides a useful corrective to such self-importance. He took issue with Anthony Kronman’s passionate and high-minded book Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (2007), in which Kronman argues that higher education has lost its soul and can only recover it by reemphasizing the building of character through the study of great literary and philosophical texts. Fish was having none of such “pretty ideas.” There is “no evidence,” he sniffed, that such study has the effect of “ennobling” us or spurring us on to noble actions. If it did, then the finest people on earth would be humanities professors, a contention for which there is, alas, plenty of evidence to the contrary.
Teachers of literature and philosophy possess specialized knowledge of a very high order, Fish asserted. But they do not have a ministry. The humanities can’t save us, and in fact they don’t really “do” anything, he says, other than give pleasure to “those who enjoy them.” Those of us involved with the humanities should reconcile ourselves to the futility of it all and embrace our uselessness as a badge of honor. At least we can claim to be engaged in “an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good.” Perhaps literary criticism is best understood as an absorbing, self-referential, but inconsequential form of play, a glass-bead game with little importance outside itself.
Fish’s comments have this virtue: they stand in direct opposition to the intense politicization of the humanities in the present-day academy, which sees literature and art as useful only when they are “instrumental to some larger good.” The founding editor of The New Criterion, Hilton Kramer, was a fierce and consistent opponent of just such corruption and a defender of the autonomy of the critical enterprise. And politicization is surely at the heart of the humanities’ enrollment problems in today’s academy. As the economist Philip Magness has found in examining data sources matched across twenty-five academic disciplines, the disciplines in greatest decline are those more heavily skewed toward the political left, notably English, foreign languages, history, philosophy, anthropology, and religion. It seems that students are voting with their feet. It is curious that defenders of the humanities are unable, or unwilling, to understand why.
But welcome as Fish’s remarks may be in contrast to the inflated claims of other humanists, they too fail the test of moral seriousness. They are overly dismissive, and they do not come to terms with exactly what it is that makes the humanities special, what places upon them a particular task, a particular burden, in the ongoing life of our civilization. That one of the humanities’ most famous, influential, and well-paid elder statesmen would damn his own livelihood with such faint praise seems in itself a perfect indicator of where we now find ourselves. I would take the Columbia professor’s position over Fish’s in a heartbeat, just as I prefer earnestness to cynicism. But neither gives us quite what is required. Neither is wise; neither does justice to the subject.
The point was well made by Robert Nisbet, writing forty-one years ago, during that period of gradual bankruptcy: “The humanists themselves [are] largely responsible for the situation they found themselves in.” They are the ones who have brought about a self-imposed diminishment, affecting all fields of humanistic study.
I look with dismay upon what has become of my own discipline of history.
History ought to be the most humbling and humanizing of subjects. It opens the world to us in all its fabulous variety, both as it is and as it has been, and provides us a window onto the astonishing range of human experience, from the earthbound world of ordinary peasants and servants to the rarefied universe of the mighty and wealthy, and everything in between.
Its forays into unfamiliar territories can both shock us and enlarge our sympathies, and increase our awareness of the many ways that human beings have gone about the business of being human. By rescuing precious things and memories from the darkness into which they would otherwise disappear, it affords an understanding of our continuity with the past and sharpens our sense of human possibility. This is all the more so if we seek to provide a balanced and honest record of humanity’s achievements and enormities alike and are generous enough to acknowledge the mixture of motives, both noble and ignoble, that each and every one of us flawed humans brings to life’s tasks.
That, at any rate, is how it ought to be. But today, instead of expanding our minds and hearts, history is increasingly used to narrow them. Instead of providing a way to deepen ourselves and helping us to embrace a mature and complex view of our past, history is increasingly being employed as a simple bludgeon that picks its targets based on a litmus-test standard—often little more than a popular cliché—applied mechanically.
Perhaps the best example of this is the pell-mell rush we have seen in recent years to pass judgment on heroes of the past and demolish the monuments to them: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and their likes. Are we really so fragile and so faint of heart that we can no longer bear to allow the honoring of giants of the past who fail in some respects to meet our current specifications? Let us grant that all three men had racial beliefs that we would find unacceptable today. Does that exhaust everything we need to know about them? Ought it to outweigh automatically the value of everything else they did?
Are we really so fragile and so faint of heart?
Apparently in some people’s minds it ought. For them, the transformation of history into a weapon depends upon a brutal simplification of the historical record, so that Washington’s ownership of slaves becomes the only relevant fact about him. A genuinely historical use of history would acknowledge, even insist upon, this fact. But it would then go on to consider it from the larger perspective of the ubiquity of slavery throughout most of human history. It would weigh the many aspects of a long, important, and consequential life. It would examine Washington’s beliefs and actions carefully in the context of their time and would take into account the provisions he made to free his slaves on his death. That kind of respectful detail and complexity are what we no longer seem to be getting today.
The weaponizing of history, then, corresponds invariably with a remarkable hostility to history. It is content to extract a single fact out of a complicated web of details, and then to drive that fact home with the mindless sloganeering of protestors who can only repeat a memorized chant.
Why should we study the past? If the state of our present discourse is any indication, the point of doing so is simply to provide us with ever better weapons to use in our present battles, ever more unanswerable supports for our invincible grievances. But that cannot last forever. Once history becomes transformed into a weapon, and everyone sees that it has been, it ceases to be a source of insight. It will not be long before it loses its credibility as history.
So what to do? If we care about history, we must rescue it from its would-be weaponizers, insist upon history’s richness and complexity, and recover the humane insight of the historian Herbert Butterfield, who argued that the historian should be a recording angel rather than a hanging judge—let alone a summary executioner.
The thing most needful is not more money but a willingness to reconsider what we are doing and why we are doing it. What are the humanities, other than disciplines with “humanistic content”? What exactly are the humanities for, other than giving pleasure to people who enjoy playing inconsequential games with words and concepts?
What does it mean to speak of the “burden” of the humanities?
First, the burden can refer to the weight the humanities themselves have to bear, the things that they are supposed to accomplish on behalf of us, our nation, or our civilization. But it can also refer to the near opposite: the ways in which the humanities’ loss of meaning has become burdensome to us, and a source of responsibility for us, so that their recovery and cultivation and preservation have become our job, even our duty.
They provide us with a lamp of illumination and a mirror of self-recognition.
Both of these senses of burden—the humanities as our necessary teacher, and the humanities as our necessary task—need to be included in our understanding of the problem. The humanities, rightly pursued and rightly ordered, can do things, teach things, preserve things, and reveal things that no other discipline can. They provide us with a lamp of illumination and a mirror of self-recognition. It is the humanities that instruct us in the range and depth of human possibility, including our immense capacity for both goodness and depravity. It is the humanities that nourish and sustain our shared memories, and connect us with our civilization’s past and with those who have come before us. It is the humanities that teach us how to think about what the good life is for us humans, and guide us in the search for civic ideals and institutions that will make the good life possible.
The humanities are imprecise by their very nature. But that does not mean they are a form of intellectual finger-painting. Imprecise is not the same thing as inaccurate. The knowledge they convey is not a rough, preliminary substitute for what psychology, chemistry, molecular biology, and physics will eventually resolve with greater finality and precision. They are an accurate reflection of the subject they treat, the most accurate possible. In the long run, we cannot do without them.
But they are not indestructible, and will not be sustainable without active attention from us. The recovery and repair of the humanities—and the restoration of the kind of insight they provide—is an enormous task. The urgency is only increasing as we move more and more deeply into the technologies of a post-human future—a strange, half-lit frontier just coming into view, in which bioengineering and pharmacology, along with the limitless wonders of digital technology, may combine to make all the fearsome challenges of the past dissolve into faint memories and leave the human image permanently altered. There would be no need for the humanities in a post-human world.
So I return to the definitional problem: what the hell are the humanities? I think the answer can be stated very simply.
The distinctive task of the humanities, unlike the natural sciences and social sciences, is to grasp human things in human terms, without converting or reducing or translating them into something else—as into physical laws, mechanical systems, biological drives, psychological disorders, social structures, and so on. The humanities attempt to understand the human condition from the inside, as it were, treating the human person as subject as well as object, the agent as well as the acted upon.
To grasp human things in human terms. Yet such means are not entirely dissimilar from the careful and disciplined methods of science, which is also, after all, a pursuit unique to humans. In fact, the humanities can benefit greatly from emulating the sciences in their careful formulation of problems, isolation of variables, and honest weighing of evidence. But the humanities are distinctive, for they begin and end with a willingness to ground ourselves in the world as we find it and experience it, the world as it appears to us, our life-world, our Lebenswelt—the thoughts, emotions, imaginings, and memories that make up our picture of reality. The genius of humanistic knowledge—and it is a form of knowledge—is its kinship with the objects it helps us to know.
Hence, the knowledge the humanities offer us is like none other and cannot be replaced by scientific breakthroughs or superseded by advances in material knowledge. Science teaches us that the earth rotates on its axis while revolving around the sun. But in the domain of the humanities, the sun still also rises and sets, and still establishes in that diurnal rhythm one of the deepest and most universal expressive symbols of all the things that rise and fall, or live and die.
The genius of humanistic knowledge . . . is its kinship with the objects it helps us to know.
It utterly violates the spirit of literature, and robs it of its value, to reduce it to something else. Too often, there seems to be a presumption among scholars that the only interest in Dickens or Proust or Conrad derives from the extent to which they can be read to confirm the abstract theoretical propositions of Marx, Freud, Fanon, and the like—or Smith and Hayek and Rand, for that matter—and promote the correct preordained political attitudes, or lend support to the identity politics du jour. Strange, that an era so pleased with its superficially freewheeling and antinomian qualities is actually so distrustful of the literary imagination, so intent upon making its productions conform to predetermined criteria. This is why our leading publishers now employ “sensitivity readers,” and feel free to perform surgery on the works of the past, removing their perceived blemishes. Meanwhile, the genuine, unfeigned love of literature is most faithfully represented not in the elite universities but among intelligent general readers and devoted secondary-school teachers scattered across the land.
If the humanities are the study of human things in human ways, then it follows that they serve as an ever-growing body of reflection about what it means to be human.
Had we more time, we could trace the historical development of that body of reflection: from the Greek conceptions of paideia and philanthropia, to the Roman notion of humanitas (set forth especially memorably by Cicero), to the great harmonizing syntheses of the medieval period, to the Renaissance studia humanitatis, to the works of the philosophes (and authors of philosophical dictionaries) of the Enlightenment.
By the nineteenth century, however, the emphasis had shifted. The humanities began to take their bearings from our increasingly problematic relationship to nature. By “nature” I don’t mean the exalted romantic sense of the term imparted to it by Wordsworth and Emerson and the rest. Instead, I mean the increasingly influential natural sciences, which pictured the world and its phenomena objectively and mechanistically, without reference to human subjectivity and meaning, and increasingly without reference to religion. It was now the distinctive role of the humanities to counter this tendency, to picture the world differently from the sciences and their technological offspring, and thereby to preserve the heart and spirit and affective properties of the human being in what seemed increasingly a soulless and materialistic age, dominated by the Satanic mills of industrial power and vast and impersonal social and economic mechanisms.
In the writings of the poet and critic Matthew Arnold, the body of knowledge we call the humanities—or, to use his preferred term, “culture”—was increasingly looked to as a substitute for religion in the formation, education, and refinement of humanity’s sentiments and moral sensibilities.
The aims of religion and culture coincided, Arnold claimed, since both concerned themselves with “the general harmonious expansion of those gifts of thought and feeling which make the peculiar dignity, wealth, and happiness of human nature.” Culture was, for him, the “study of perfection,” a force for balance and integration whose function was particularly vital to a civilization that was sadly becoming “mechanical and external” and tending constantly to become more so. “Faith in machinery,” he insisted, was “our besetting danger.”
We now live in a different time, one in which Matthew Arnold’s idea of culture is disdained. In our age, it is the very category of “the human” itself that is under attack, as philosophers reject the hierarchical distinction between humans and animals, or humans and nature, and postmodernists of various stripes proclaim the disappearance of the human “subject.”
Hence it will become necessary for the humanities to defend “the human,” taking their bearings from the problems and prospects now opening before us in the realms of biotechnology and medicine. These developments—human cloning, genetic engineering, artificial wombs, species-melding, body-parts manufacture, bionic and pharmacological enhancements, and many others—call into question precisely the inherent limitations that have always figured into what it means to be human. They throw open the windows of possibility, in ways both terrifying and exhilarating.
It will become necessary for the humanities to defend “the human.”
We’re currently seeing this in the wildly ambivalent opinions expressed in the frantic public discussion about artificial intelligence and its various offshoots. People do not know whether to be ecstatic or horrified about what is coming. The only thing that they seem sure of is that no one is in charge. As the power to transform the material conditions of our existence becomes more and more highly developed, what part of our humanity will come to the fore? Shall it be the unlimited capacity of the human will to go wherever it wishes, free from the constraints of biology and free from the old nostra of departed gods? Is a transhuman future therefore inevitable, and will it be one that discards our entire human past of sin, folly, imperfection, and mortality as irrelevant, with nothing in it worthy of being remembered, as an entirely new world and new way of being envelops us?
Or will it be our deep cultural memory of the Tower of Babel, of Icarus, of the ring of Gyges—or the ring at the center of Tolkien’s great fable—of Faust, of Ozymandias, of Lear bellowing on the heath, of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, of all the great stories that describe the bad endings that come to those who forget who they are, and succumb to overweening pride? Will the humanities be the vessel that stores this deep cultural memory—not just for antiquarian reasons, but because the utopian imaginings of the transhumanists will surely betray us, as they always do, and the weight of stories that have endured can at least give us countervailing wisdom, and a sense of connection with those who came before us? If the humanities do choose that role, will they not have to resist stoutly the logic of the new technologies, rather than embrace them uncritically, and treat their ascendancy as inevitable? And if the humanities choose that path, will they not have to develop a clear rationale for doing so, rather than stand accused of Luddism and fearful reaction?
One of the ways that the humanities can indeed save us—if they can recover their nerve—is by reminding us that our predecessors knew many true things about humankind that modernity has failed to repeal, even if it has managed to forget them. One of the most powerful witnesses to that fact was Aldous Huxley, whose Brave New World (1932) continues to grow in stature as our world comes increasingly to resemble the one depicted in its pages. In that world, as one character says, “everybody’s happy,” thanks to endless sex, endless consumer goods, endless youth, mood-altering drugs, and all-consuming entertainment. But the character known as John the Savage dares to believe that there might be more to life than pleasure and comfort. Here he is, in passionate dialogue with Mustapha Mond, one of the heads of the World State:
“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, the Resident World Controller of Western Europe, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.” There was a long silence.
“I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.
It is worth noting that John the Savage has read all of Shakespeare. He has that advantage over his contemporaries. Then again, there would be no need for Shakespeare in a post-human future. (Mustapha Mond too has read Shakespeare and the Bible but has renounced their wisdom, in favor of the totalitarian new order.)
Huxley understood that there was something nobly incorrigible in the human spirit, a restlessness and conflictedness that is built into the constitution of our humanity, an unease that somehow comes with being what we are, and that could not be stilled by a regime of mere good feeling, or willingly be sacrificed for its sake. But Huxley also teases and taunts us with the possibility that we might be disposed to give up on our peculiarly betwixt-and-between status, to give up on the riddles that every serious thinker since the dawn of human history has tried to solve. Huxley was prescient in fearing that, in the relentless search for happiness, human beings might endeavor to alter their very nature, tampering with the last bastion of fate: their genetic constitution. Should that happen, supreme irony of ironies, the search for human happiness would culminate in the end of the human race as we know it. We would have become something else.
C. S. Lewis, writing eleven years after Huxley, in the midst of the Second World War, had a similar vision. He called it “the abolition of Man.”
The transhuman impulse is, of course, not really so different from the self-subverting pattern of the twentieth century’s better-known totalitarian ideologies, which sought to produce “happy” societies by abolishing the individual. Yet the lure of a pleasure-swaddled and digitally insulated posthumanity may be the particular form of that temptation to which the Western liberal democracies of the twenty-first century are especially prone. Hence the timelessness of Huxley’s work, to remind us that if we take such a step in our “quest to live as gods” we will be leaving much of our humanity behind. One of those things left behind may, ironically, be happiness itself, since the very possibility of human happiness is inseparable from the struggles and sufferings and displacements experienced by our restless, complex, and incomplete human natures. There is no happiness without unhappiness, or without the hard work of self-overcoming by which we become ourselves. We need to make sure that the future generations of savages know about Shakespeare, who will help them understand why they should want to claim the right to be unhappy. And to be human.
The body of knowledge that we call “the humanities” teaches that very lesson in a thousand texts and a thousand ways, for those who have been shown how to see and hear it. It is not a lesson that is readily on offer in our increasingly distracted world, and it is not grasped and absorbed without considerable effort. I believe that it will be the work of the humanities—the burden of the humanities—to remind us of it in the years to come, and of much else that we are ever more disposed to forget.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 42 Number 3, on page 4
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