13 Dec 2017

The Humanities and the Modern University

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Yale in Winter

Justin Stover contemplates the diminished role of the Humanities in the modern University, but he takes a very long view, shrugging off the rise of fads and ideologies. He believes that, in the long run, both the Humanities and the University will not only survive, but continue to perform the same function of building and credentialing Western Society’s elite that they have always done.

We began with the crisis of the humanities and ended with the survival of the university itself. This is no accident. The heart of the university is the arts, understood broadly. For the first centuries of the institution’s existence, every student had to traverse the arts curriculum before they could go on to achieve an employable degree in law, medicine, or theology. At any given time, the arts faculty and students would have formed by far the largest bloc in any university. The fact that students are still awarded BAs and MAs is a distant echo of their centrality. The arts they taught were in theory the seven liberal arts, although in practice primarily grammar (which included almost everything we would now call literary studies) and logic. But the formulation of the seven liberal arts permits a wide mandate covering most of what we consider the humanities—everything connected with the understanding of what’s written down—as well as the first and last letters in STEM, mathematics in all its branches, the physical and natural sciences. …

The contemporary university is a strange chimaera. It has become an institution for teaching undergraduates, a lab for medical and technological development in partnership with industry, a hospital, a museum (or several), a performance hall, a radio station, a landowner, a big-money (or money-losing) sports club, a research center competing for government funding, often the biggest employer for a hundred miles around, and, for a few institutions, a hedge fund (“with a small college attached for tax purposes,” adds one wag). Unbundling may well happen. If it does, where will the university be found amid the wreckage? …

We cannot attribute the present decline to some change in historical circumstance. Writing a commentary on Virgil is just as useless now as it was in the year 450. The reality is that the humanities have always been about courtoisie, a constellation of interests, tastes, and prejudices which marks one as a member of a particular class. That class does not have to be crudely imagined solely in economic terms. Indeed, the humanities have sometimes done a good job of producing a class with some socioeconomic diversity. But it is a class nonetheless. Roman boys (of a certain social background) labored under the grammaticus’s rod because their parents wanted to initiate them into the wide community of Virgil readers—a community which spanned much of the vast Roman world, and which gave the bureaucratic class a certain cohesion it otherwise lacked. So too in the Middle Ages: it is no accident that what we might think of as the scholastic and the courtly are so often linked. Reading Virgil, commenting on Aristotle, participating in quaestiones disputatae, writing chansons de geste and romances—these made scholars, bachelors, masters, and doctors alike, set apart as an international community embedded in but separate from the international community of the Church, the religious orders, and the waxing national powers. …

It remains true today. Deep down, what most humanists value about the humanities is that it gives them participation in a community in which they can share similar tastes in reading, art, food, travel, music, media, and yes, politics. We might talk about academic diversity, but the academy is a tribe, and one with relatively predictable tastes. It does not take a particularly sharp observer to guess whether a given humanist might be fond of some new book reviewed favorably in the LRB or some new music discussed enthusiastically on NPR. The guess might not always be right, but if even odds are offered our observer could get away with a tidy sum. If the bet were on political affiliation, the payoff would be almost guaranteed.

As teachers, what humanists want most of all is to initiate their students into that class. Despite occasional conservative paranoia, there is not some sinister academic plot to brainwash students with liberal dogma. Instead, humanists are doing what they have always done, trying to bring students into a class loosely defined around a broad constellation of judgments and tastes. This constellation might include political judgments, but is never reducible to politics. It is also very susceptible to change. For two hundred years or more, European universities were deeply enmeshed in the pernicious stupidity of Ramism, with Ramist professors installed across Europe in any number of the humanistic disciplines. Eventually the fad dissipated, and today, the celebrated method of Petrus Ramus holds little more than antiquarian interest. We should not assume that the current modes and fashions of the academic class are permanent. But if they are to change, that change will come from the inside.

A must-read.

4 Feedbacks on "The Humanities and the Modern University"


Regarding the “..pernicious stupidity of Ramism..” it should be noted that Ramism emphasized strongly methodology and observations and empiricism rather than revealed truths. It also marked the first formal departures from Aristotle and his many, many falsehoods regarding taxonomy, and science. In many ways Ramism paved the way for the scientific revolution and the idea that “truth” could be obtained from observation and experimentation rather than revelation and insight.

In many respects, the modern university, with its emphasis on post-modernism, safe spaces and the rejection of the “dead white male” canon is a lot worse than anything brought about by Ramism.

So, no, a commentary on Virgil is just as relevant now as it would have been 450 years ago. Before you can reject Virgil, you would probably have to understand it first. This is something that the modern humanities utterly fail to do.

JK Brown

Yet another waxing romantic about the liberal arts, but blind to what is today the reality of what is passed off as the liberal arts. We can learn a lot by observing the lack of any effort by American universities’ Humanities departments to use the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta to highlight their offerings to students or the larger community.

Every such writer is a revelation of the lack of “critical sense” among the “educated strata”. The deficiency is very evident in their easy seduction by Fascism, by Hitler’s Nazism and the Soviet contradictions.

As this observer highlighted 95 years ago, the one thing the university does not hold in high regard is teaching.

“We are informed by many that education is failing us. And well it may he so, if producing books is eulogized and repaid by advancement, while the efforts to produce men are scoffed at. It has been dinned in our ears that education must save us at the present juncture. To which, if true, I reply that, unless we regain the love and art of teaching, we are lost.

“The truth is that at present the teacher exists by sufferance only, and stands against the current in the scholarly fraternity-a fact recognized by students as well as by faculty. For the educational field has been preempted by the so-called “research men.” Their standards of scholarship have been set up as the only norms.”

The Ban on Teaching by AN Instructor, Scribner’s Magazine, Vol 73, 1923


A million years ago (well, thirty), I started graduate school in theater. Back in the olden days, students didn’t study literary theory and criticism until graduate school. The first text we read in our literary theory class was Aristotle’s “Poetics.” I found it truly relevant to studying dramatic literature in 1980’s. Now, intro to theater courses are all about theory and criticism and Aristotle isn’t even read in grad school.

Seattle Sam

If you’re studying Humanities at Swarthmore, you can take this class for credit:

Sex, Gender, and the Bible

“The first two chapters of the biblical book of Genesis offer two very different ancient accounts of the creation of humanity and the construction of gender. The rest of the book of Genesis offers a unique portrayal of family dynamics, drama and dysfunction, full of complex and compelling narratives where gender is constantly negotiated and renegotiated. In this class, we will engage in close readings of primary biblical sources and contemporary feminist and queer scholarship about these texts, as we explore what the first book of the Bible says about God, gender, power, sexuality, and family values.”


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