For the past six months, I’ve been hearing odd complaints that the humanities, once home, supposedly, to the study of “truth, beauty and goodness,” have been overwhelmed by concern for “race, class and gender.” Another came last Friday, using the exact phrases of the older ones, all stemming from a single “study” put forward by the National Association of Scholars (NAS) in January.
Personally, I see this as much ado about very little, as nothing more than nostalgia for the Romantic era, for an attitude exemplified by the Keats lines at the end of “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
A great poem, yes. But its conclusion? For the most part in European and American history, the study of the humanities has been the study of cultures, their evolutions, and their clashes—ideological, of course, but otherwise as well. In many ways, that adds up to the study of race, class, and gender–not simply truth, beauty or even goodness.
The rather infamous NAS study, mentioned on this blog most recently by Allan Lichtman, Recasting History: Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating U.S. History, sees a subject matter zero-sum game:
We found that all too often the course readings gave strong emphasis to race, class, or gender (RCG) social history, an emphasis so strong that it diminished the attention given to other subjects in American history (such as military, diplomatic, religious, intellectual history).
I guess the authors feel that, sticking to American history, if you study race, you can’t study the Civil War (military); looking at class precludes examination of the impact of the French Revolution (diplomatic) on American politics and Anglo/American relations; and examination of gender makes it impossible to look into the evolving role of women in the evangelical movement (religion). And intellectual history, I assume, must only look at rarefied questions of truth, beauty and goodness—something of a mistaken idealization of what the Founding Fathers seems (to some) to have been attempting. The opposite, of course, is true.
As all of us who teach the humanities know, there is no way you can exclude race, class or gender from any legitimate study of culture, the past or the arts. Nor does emphasizing them mean other things need leaving out. In fact, almost any aspect of the humanities can be studied more fully by including concerns of race, class and gender. Any other focus would be much too narrow, leaving students with a view of human culture much more skewed than it is today, now that we have expanded our depth of field, so to speak, by insisting that questions of race, class and gender be included. Attempts to view the humanities more narrowly, though they have been made, tail off into sterile discussions with no grounding in the realities of human existence.
If you want to look at truth, how better to do so than to examine it in light of conceptions of race, their validity and their consequences? If you want to study beauty, what could enhance our understanding of it more than comparisons of standards of beauty that arise as a function of conceptions of class? And, goodness knows, what better place is there for starting to understand goodness than with the relationships of the sexes?
My current Perspectives in Literature class, a sophomore-level course, is built around perceptions of alcohol and drugs. This leads us to talk about race, class and gender quite a bit. The midterm, which I am grading this weekend (this being a summer course), was a take-home asking students to write on the value of tragedy to art. Because they see alcoholism and drugs in their daily lives, because they experience how addictions are exacerbated by problems of race, class and gender in their New York City lives, they are now able to write about tragedy from perspective new to them in their academic lives—their own. They are learning something about the humanities—and about truth, beauty and goodness—that they never could were these examined simply as concepts and not as aspects of real human experience, aspects that can only be understood, really, through the problems of that real human experience.
And those, as we know, often come down to race, class and gender.