Herbert London: Why Are The Humanities Disappearing

Dec 11, 2013

I often find myself in the odd position of addressing the question “why are the humanities disappearing?” In most instances my interrogators assume I will say something about the desire for vocational training in an environment where jobs are scarce. Clearly that is an answer, but a partial and unreflective response.

Based on my experience in the Academy over 35 years, I have noticed an evolutionary condition far more significant and far more malignant than the rise of vocational education.

For most of my academic life I resided in a place called Western Civilization. My leaders in this congenial home were Aristotle, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Machiavelli, Mozart, Rembrandt to name a few. My life, my views, were cultivated by these people and their work was imbibed as if mother’s milk. They weren’t always tranquil; in fact, on many occasions they were disquieting, but they were my “whole.” They told me who I am, what I believe and what questions about life I should ask. They were the guides in a complex, often dark world.

What happened to my ideational home? It was cast down a slide into fragmentation. There are scholars who will know about one or maybe two of these guides, but they no longer live in Western Civilization.

The common core is no longer common. The foundation of this home was a belief in the best that has been thought and written. Conditions that divide us such as class, gender, race were subordinated to a common humanity, the glue that keeps a civilization intact.

Now the civilization is split at the seams, disappearing before our eyes as a weight falling into the sea. There isn’t a there, there. It is a civilization suffering from homelessness. What remains of the humanities are fragments, puzzle parts that don’t connect. How can a student possibly appreciate the civilization in which he resides when he sees only fragments, division and needless specialization?

Each year that passes, newly minted PhD’s enter the ranks of the professoriate with new, arcane specialties, e.g. Did Hamlet suffer form an Oedipus complex? Were Know Nothing adherents paranoid? These questions in themselves are reasonable, but they overlook the sweep and depth of human experience. Those who graduate into the Academy arrive never having lived in Western Civilization. The air they breathe is clear, but it doesn’t have the dusty reminiscence of the past, with its glories and failures, romances and betrayals, majesty and tyranny. They lack guides and perspective. Is it any wonder their students do not see value in the humanities?

Lying in wait is a time when business students will dominate the Academy completely. The model will be bureaucracy. Rules will be legion, but enlightenment foreign. Inspiration will be a concept long forgotten, as will the humanities themselves.

Although college students yearn for meaning, the drum beat of fragmentation continues apace. Narrow and narrower are the assignment of readings. Much of what is assigned has been pre-digested, i.e. Read what Professor Jones wrote about Plato. Hence Plato doesn’t have to be read. Here is yet another manifestation of fragmentation. The whole is there, just largely ignored.

So when the question arises of why the humanities are disappearing from the curriculum, it should be noted that if we have lost a home in Western Civilization, the humanities cannot be taught effectively or understood by students. The catalogue that refers to the humanities is mechanistic. There is a belief these courses may be necessary, but few can describe why this is the case. The defense rests.

Western Civilization is in retreat and the standards we once knew evaporate like soap bubbles. Fragmentation is all that is left and frankly that isn’t much to build a university on.

Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research,  a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org

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