Don’t blame discrimination, writes Damon Linker, for the dearth of conservatives in the humanities. Though discrimination exists, I think he’s right. The real issue is that conservatives and the modern research university approach the humanities in fundamentally different — even incompatible — ways.
In Linker’s telling, conservatives are interested in the “timeless human wisdom they believe can be found in the great books of the past. . . . What’s new to say about them? Probably nothing. Instead, reflecting on such themes entails a rediscovery of knowledge that past readers may have possessed but that must be reacquired by every reader, by every student, anew.”
But the academy, Linker writes, seeks above all to make “progress in knowledge” and publish the findings. This is done by expanding the canon to include new texts, by posing new questions of race, gender, and class to analyze old texts, or by finding an obscure specialty. All of these pursuits create new publishable knowledge that teachers then impart to students in academic courses.
To borrow Linker’s examples: Conservatives want to study love and justice in Shakespeare while the modern research university is more interested in producing and transmitting new knowledge about gender in Shakespeare.
Behind this difference no doubt lie crucial disagreements about the nature of progress and education. That debate is worth having. But surely we can also ask and answer a set of practical questions to draw out the pros and cons of each approach to the humanities.
Start with this: Which approach is more compelling to students? Right now, enrollment in the humanities continues to dwindle, resting at around 5 percent of all completed bachelor’s degrees. This, the lowest level since we began keeping reliable records, has persisted while humanities programs have abandoned the “great books” in order to create a more diverse canon and sought to excite students by focusing on modern questions and concerns in place of the old search for truth.
This failure was predictable. Changing the subject matter to make it “relevant” to 20th- or 21st-century concerns was always a recipe for boredom. The issues of the moment are already debated endlessly; they have become part of the burden of daily life. Studying them keeps us chained to the dreary present, away from the world of possibility.
This method almost precludes the possibility of what Eva Brann, the longest-serving tutor at St. John’s College, has called “a seizing away into a new and possibly higher realm,” the magical sense of discovery or rapture that instills in students an enduring passion to learn more. Anybody who has sustained a lasting interest in the humanities will recognize the feeling, which is at its core an experience of need and love; having learned that it might be possible to truly see the human condition in its fullness, the student feels lacking and incomplete — even blind — without such knowledge. It is this discovery of need that drives students to withstand the looming pressures of the job market and the judgment of their peers. Without it, students have every reason to flee the humanities to the more “practical” pre-professional or STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.
Having learned that it might be possible to truly see the human condition in its fullness, the student feels lacking and incomplete — even blind — without such knowledge.
An eminent classics professor of mine once devoted an entire class to detailing the “skills” that our study of Virgil would bring us. Not a student in the class believed a word he was saying, and I can’t believe that he did either. Elizabeth Corey, director of the honors program at Baylor, is correct to write that “no amount of discussion about the virtues of ‘critical thinking and writing’ or ‘engagement with the global community’ or even ‘civic duty’ will ever persuade a young person that such study is worthwhile.” If a student is simply looking for useful skills, no flaccid, pseudo-scientific rhetoric will convince him to read Rousseau instead of studying business or economics. The humanities’ advantage is their ability to inspire an urgent love.
The key is the moment of discovery. But the modern research university does everything it can to prevent students from reaching it. First, it gives students so much choice — right from the start, when students are uneducated and don’t yet know what they need — that the path of the humanities seems directionless and anxiety-inducing. Students are given no solid ground to stand on.
Second, they are made to sit in daytime lectures. This is destructive: Learning passively as a teacher “covers the material” short-circuits the thrill of liberal education, in which the students are active participants in the search for truth, cutting through the jungle of uncertainty. This way, advances are earned and consequently cherished.
Third, courses can be highly specialized, immersing students in the study of “Transatlantic Female Modernists” or “Representations of the Other in Jewish Literature.” This is a natural consequence of using highly specialized academic researchers, rather than teachers, to instruct students. These professors teach what they know and what is of interest to them, but they lose sight of the larger questions that animate beginners.
As it is currently construed, undergraduate education in the humanities aims to produce the next generation of academics. But that path is right only for a tiny number of people. Left behind are the masses of students who have burning questions about who they are and what they should do with their lives. These students want education for life — and the modern research university has nothing to offer them.
Conservative groups — e.g., the Hertog Foundation and the Tikvah Fund, along with non-partisan colleges such as St. John’s and St. Thomas Aquinas — immerse students in foundational texts, creating communities of learners who work together to find the truth. But that crucial good, truth, is usually ignored in the modern research university. “Factuality, validity, relevance, interpretability, influence, motivation — all these may be examined,” writes Eva Brann, “but the question ‘Is it true, what this book says?’ is not admitted.” Without it, the entire enterprise becomes “academic,” not relevant to normal people’s lives.
This education becomes a sort of intellectual game, separate from students’ lives and moral development. Unsurprisingly, students have been declining to play. But not only students: The average article in a humanities journal article is read by just ten people. Eighty-two percent of these articles are not even cited once, and of those that are cited, only 20 percent have actually been read. Talk about “progress in knowledge” all you want, but nobody is reading it and students are being lost.
Fundamental questions about the nature of the good life compel students to pay attention. Highly specialized questions about the relation of old books to modern political fixations — on the right or the left — do not.
The purpose of humanities education will always be fiercely debated. But it is important to ask, what is worth the attention of a beginner? And no less important, what will keep the attention of a beginner? It is my contention that conservatives have this right and the modern research university has it wrong. Humanities education should free students from apeirokalia, lack of experience in things beautiful, and launch them on their own adventures in search of what truly matters. If it can do that, it will breathe new life into the university.