Sunday, 26 September 2010

The Decline of "The Humanities" in America

Anxiety deepens in English Departments all over America, and to a lesser degree with their academic cousins in Art, History, Philosophy and Music. Overproduced Ph.D.’s toil sullenly as peonized adjuncts. Their Su-peers, lucky enough to get tenure before 197ß, draw megasalaries, subsidized by the unlucky ABD’s.

Students avoid their classes in droves. Part of this due to the hyperutilitarianism of an American ideology that touts a good job rather than a Good Life. Part was brought on inadvertently when “humanists”, threatened by the brilliant progress of their scientific intellectual foes, wasted a generation in pseudo-philosophizing, a real turnoff for many professors and most students.

All of this made very confusing by the corporatizing of the University as a normative social institution, especially by the “for profit” electronic U’s that cynically corrupted federal aid to the aspiring poor. This mess deepens when you realize that the higher stumbles of the professors stems from the progressive self-destruction of pre-secondary instruction accelerating by the endemic distractions of an infantilizing mass media distraction complex. What to do with my income replaces what to make of my life.

The more I read and think about the recent tsunami of essays in the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Op Ed media from daily newspaper to monthly magazines the more I’ve concluded our original sin is misdefining the humanities. They are not the antithesis of science: Humanistic Study without Science is a myopic farce. As a Jesuit philosophy major with a crosscultural Ph.D. my own grasp of science has been, I’ve discovered, deceptively distractive.

I have surprised myself in my retirement to discover a hunger for better comprehension of the sciences to refine my redefinition of “The Humanities”. Newly humanized man millennia ago devised explanations of life and behavior with what we now call theology. Medieval western universities were almost wholly the saving and serving such God-given texts. Slowly, accelerating with the Renaissance, empirical sciences devised strategies for confirming what life and society really amounted to. The medieval domination only gradually was consistently confronted and mainly replaced.

I find myself more and more feeling the exaltation I first discovered in philosophy and literature in the sciences. When I read about Penn’s Patrick McGovern’s discovery with new instruments of genomics what they drank at the burial of King Midas, my spirit levitated. When he shows how mouldy figs point to the discovery of alcohol, my spirit lifts!

Other paleontologists I’ve discovered speculate that “cooked” food gave our ancestors more impetus to brain expansion and gradually the protruding jaw that had done the heavy lifting before cooked food eased the jaw back so that speech became possible. If you thrill at “Moby Dick”, the brilliance of human reason at work “reading” fossils gives me the same mental stimulation. Heck, the first things I search out as I awake from sleep today to read the Times on the Internet is the daily portions of “Science” and “Technology”. Those categories have edged out “Books” and “Obituaries”, for decade my first picks.

And “English” and especially the “American” version thereof is too filiopietistic! Sidney Smyth’s 1820 sneer in “The Edinburg Review” “Who reads an American book, who goes to an American play” still haunts our curriculum. My plea for an International English curriculum (with Ph.D’s required to know a second modern language well enough to translate any extant global work to add to IE’s treasures) is for a future world-oriented contemporary slant. Show students what’s in the minds of six billion others, and their aroused curiosity will lead them to “Our Great Writers”.

The same with media, art and architecture. (I still stand by my 1962 essay, “Public Art and Private Sensibility” in Lewis Leary’s landmark “Contemporary Literary Scholarship”.) Guess how many physics classes would oversubscribe if they only talked about Sir Isaac Newton?

“The Humanities” must begin to include essays on the natural and social sciences. It’s as important to read David Riesman’s “The Lonely Crowd” as Saul Bellow’s “The Adventures of Augie Marsh”.

We need to read Stephan Hawking as well as Dom De Lilo. The main thing is to arouse a mature interest in all the worlds of learning. For the last generation it has been an either/or curriculum tangle. We don’t need so many isolated professors or too job oriented students.The more angles, the richer the consciousness. You say we can’t get old style humanists to share ideas with up to date scientists. Why not try it. C.P. Snow is old hat. The future belongs to the curious.

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