Sunday, 14 November 2010

The Trouble with the Humanities in America

Make that “troubles”, plural. But I begin with the grossest betrayal: the simultaneous emergence of the $100,000 super-research professor and the parallel peonization of the teaching A.B.D. Folk opinion has it that the English professor is by definition a Hyperliberal, a judgment I not only agree with but exemplify. But sweet talk is not philosophy nor ethics.

Our betrayal of the underclasses began after World War I, when the NCTE abandoned the IVY-dominated MLA to take over the training of public school teachers. Two Americas emerged: the elite institutions where allegedly best and brightest hungered to succeed in, and the increasingly bedraggled public schools, underfinanced and underprotected. Jefferson’s perceptive remark that a democracy could be no better than its common schools was ignored, to our current dismay.

That trahison des clercs is a major reason I junked a full professorship with tenure after only 30 years of teaching, from high school through research university. I’d rather write for an alternative weekly than participate in the farce that our educational system had declined to: cultivator of a few Nobel laureates rather than nurturer of the least of our democratic charges.

Such inequities are but a short step down to iniquities. That intellectual treason led quickly and surely to a pseudo-democracy presided over by barbarians like Rush Limbaugh who prates mindlessly about “Excellence in Broadcasting” and (dis)simulates a conservative think tank while repeatedly alluding on air to Imam Obama all the while expressing his fatuous hope that he will fail.

And this malarkey is funded by the richest and most powerful agents trained in this duplicity at our Ivy Towers. From “Every boy can grow up to be President” to Ronald Reagan’s despicable campaign to make it possible in America once more to be rich. I find $100,000 professors a greater ethical disgrace than hyperbonus bankers. We’re supposed to be leading the ethical way.

But leading inevitably to this collapse has been our defective definition of “the Humanities”. By the Arnoldian criterion drilled into us in graduate school, we must see that our charges are exposed to the best that was thought and said in the past. Not until I by chance read the maverick British professor Raymond Williams did I learn the essential conclusion of that Arnoldian aphorism so that fresh ideas can be brought to bear on our new industrial problems! What a failure of judgment in most of our Professoriate: reducing Matthew Arnold to a flack for upper middle class Culture with a capital C, when it was our small c culture that they were corrupting by their negligence. Inequities are iniquities indeed.

Where did they get off the track? Their first responsibility as guardians of the Humanities is to know what they are: not a booklist for silly exams, but an earnest evaluation of what makes us human, i.e. a sophisticated explanation of what makes us human, viz., our reason and our free will. A valid Humanities curriculum would begin with valid paleographical speculations about how and when mankind achieved the breakthrough first of toolmaking and then the wonder of speech. Solid speculation contends that agriculture nurtured us physically so much better than the wander and hunt society that our brain grew into speech and conscious culture.

That’s where our students must begin, examining critically the many myths and beliefs that led over millennia to our technological present. With constant focus on what we find ethical at every stage of human development, the better to use our two greatest gifts, reason and free will. When we hear that art speculators have just paid $54 millions for a Matisse when billions of fellow humans are dying from poor nutrition or easily controlled diseases, we must learn that this is a moral outrage. As is, we deploy books as mazes to be threaded for a meaningless degree. That’s inhumanities behavior.

For millennia we didn’t know the extent of fellow humans’ sufferings and frustrations. Now we do, and school must teach us how to use our reason and free will to save our newly discovered fellows.

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