Zealous for the Humanities

The title here is from the end of David Brooks’ column in today’s New York Times. He’s lamenting how we’ve let the humanities become debased, allowing them to fall from their 20th-century high (in terms of college graduates) to a new low (though he doesn’t consider that, before the 20th century as well as in most of the rest of the world, the number of people studying the humanities, as a percentage of any population, was much lower still). He sums up his “back in the day” argument:

Somewhere along the way, many people in the humanities lost faith in this uplifting mission. The humanities turned from an inward to an outward focus. They were less about the old notions of truth, beauty and goodness and more about political and social categories like race, class and gender. Liberal arts professors grew more moralistic when talking about politics but more tentative about private morality because they didn’t want to offend anybody.

His ‘uplifting mission’ is “educating the emotions with art in order to refine it,” whatever that means.

Were Brooks a student of mine, I would point him to the early Yeats poem “The Song of the Happy Shepherd” which contains these lines:

Then nowise worship dusty deeds,
Nor seek, for this is also sooth,
To hunger fiercely after truth,
Lest all thy toiling only breeds
New dreams, new dreams; there is no truth
Saving in thine own heart. Seek, then,
No learning from the starry men,
Who follow with the optic glass
The whirling ways of stars that pass –
Seek, then, for this is also sooth,
No word of theirs – the cold star-bane
Has cloven and rent their hearts in twain,
And dead is all their human truth.

In a sense, Brooks harkens back to a sensibility that flowered briefly in the Romantic era two hundred years ago (and more than a generation before Yeats)—or so it seems, for only then can I see there being any possible argument that the humanities aren’t about such things as “race, class and gender” or lack a moralistic and even a political focus, private or public.

Oddly, it has never been the professors who “didn’t want to offend anybody” but those who want to control higher education who have used the concept of “offense” to rein in the professoriate, either from the right or the left. The actual professors, much like Karl Weintraub, the one Brooks cites, are much more interested in generating learning and excitement about knowledge than they are concerned about giving offense. That’s as true today as it has ever been.

And it is as exhausting. Brooks quotes Weintraub: “Sometimes when I have spent an hour or more, pouring all my enthusiasm and sensitivities into an effort to tell these stories in the fullness in which I see and experience them, I feel drained and exhausted. I think it works on the student, but I do not really know.” None of us does know—though all of us professors recognize how difficult it is to do what Weintraub tries to do—though we try as hard as we can. I come from class reeling, bumping into walls, to collapse into my office chair, having poured my own heart into a performance that may or may not have any impact.

What has changed since Weintraub’s day a generation ago is that teaching, though given lip service, is a smaller and smaller part of our jobs as professors. We are asked to publish more than ever before and find “service” tasks heaped upon us. And our teaching is evaluated by formula (I was once criticized, after being observed in a discussion class, for not having written on the board enough—because the form actually mentioned making use of the blackboard, not because it made any sense in that context). We are not trusted as educators (no teachers are, these days) and are constantly looking over our shoulders. Tenure, which should provide the confidence for teaching well, is fast disappearing, replaced by contingent and part-time employment that turns teacher concentration from the student onto simply retaining the job. This is why so many teachers don’t want to offend anybody: a disgruntled student, colleague, or administrator can get them fired—or, at best, can cause them to spend innumerable hours over accusations that, in many cases, should never have been taken seriously in the first place. Our institutions don’t trust their teachers, so assume guilt until innocence is proven.

No report about the importance of the humanities is going to change that. Brooks says that a new one, from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences “is important.” Maybe. But it’s not the humanities that are at fault, but a culture that devalues both teaching and learning—in all arenas. Our do-it-yourself ethos has spread through all areas of society. My wife says that one of the reasons so many homes are in disrepair is that Lowe’s and Home Depot make it so easy for all of us to think we can renovate or repair without expert help. The internet does the same for education, and with the same result.

What Brooks bemoans as a descent from the past cannot be changed simply by zeal. That exists, and always has, among the professors. The real problem is a commodification and corporatization of education, one that sweeps enthusiasm to the side in favor of countability and accountability.

Last week, I taught Allen Ginsberg’s remarkable Howl, feeling like a bowl of melted jelly as I slithered from the classroom at the end. I could update it:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by pettiness, starving intellectually naked,

dragging themselves through corporate streets at dawn looking for discussion,

angelheaded teachers burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and curious sat up thinking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating….

But no one cares, least of all the David Brookses of the world. After all, he’s doing no more, in his column, than trying to make his own political points out of an elegy for the very humanities that we professors hang our lives on.

2 thoughts on “Zealous for the Humanities

  1. A very moving ending to a very thoughtful and thought-provoking piece.

    The analogy between DIY home repairs and remodeling and current trends in education is very fresh–and insightful.

  2. //We are not trusted as educators (no teachers are, these days) and are constantly looking over our shoulders. Tenure, which should provide the confidence for teaching well, is fast disappearing, replaced by contingent and part-time employment that turns teacher concentration from the student onto simply retaining the job. This is why so many teachers don’t want to offend anybody: a disgruntled student, colleague, or administrator can get them fired—or, at best, can cause them to spend innumerable hours over accusations that, in many cases, should never have been taken seriously in the first place. Our institutions don’t trust their teachers, so assume guilt until innocence is proven.//

    So beautifully put, especially how you focused on the tentative nature of what used to be a tenured profession. Thank you.

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