How Not to Promote the Humanities

by Jane S. Shaw

Once again, the gulf between the higher-education establishment and reformers is painfully visible. But in this case, the critics are defending higher education, while the establishment can’t seem to find the right words.

The Heart of the Matter is a report from the august American Academy of Arts and Sciences written by a commission composed of luminaries such as the presidents of Duke, New York University, and Amherst College (to name a few). Issued last June, it was supposed to defend the humanities and social sciences. (I recently read the report in preparation for a public discussion about it at North Carolina State University on March 7.)

The social sciences can do all right by themselves, but the humanities are indeed in trouble. Reading this paper, you would assume that it is because the humanities don’t get as much money as science and technology are getting. As I wrote this week, the paper is intellectually lightweight and utilitarian in content, and since it was a plea for money, it was written in language that these scholars considered appropriate for politicians and bureaucrats. Read it for yourself and I think you’ll agree. Peter Wood of the National Association of Scholars called it a wretched defense of the humanities. Gilbert Sewall, writing on NRO, said it falls flat.”

So, who defends the humanities? The best defense I have seen is Heather Mac Donald’s stunning article in the Wall Street Journal (it is no longer available to non-subscribers). She actually has respect for the humanities, which she calls a dialogue with the past. That dialogue became “a defining feature of Western civilization, prompting the evolution of such radical ideas as constitutional government and giving birth to arts and architecture of polyphonic complexity.” Sadly, there’s no bracing language like that in the American Academy’s report.