[L]aden with bland commonplaces and recommendations that could bear fruit only in a Utopia, [the report] will be dutifully noted by pious commentators and then live a quiet life on the shelf for which it was destined.
The report has indeed prompted plenty of humanities huzzahs, like this one from David Brooks, in which he quotes from an embarrassing letter written by a history professor at the University of Chicago…
Why embarrassing? Because it’s a completely stereotypical professor-complaint letter in which the professor pats himself on the back for his intellectual and emotional acuity, and bitches that his students (people who are between eighteen and twenty-one years old) don’t share his capacity for depth.
I feel like screaming suddenly: ‘Oh, God, my dear student, why CANNOT you see that this matter is a real, real matter, often a matter of the very being, for the person, for the historical men and women you are looking at — or are supposed to be looking at!’ … [W]hen I have spent an hour or more, pouring all my enthusiasm and sensitivities into an effort to tell these stories in the fullness in which I see and experience them, I feel drained and exhausted…
Yes, why can’t these recent high school graduates at the University of Chicago see and feel the very being of my stories? I pour my sensitivity out at them and then just feel drained and exhausted at the futility of my efforts! Oh, God, my dear student…
This is condescending, self-aggrandizing, crap. Brooks won’t go to the trouble of making the case for an historically deep education, so he quotes this heavy breathing and hopes we’ll nod our heads – the youth today! So soulless!
Everyone’s ready to agree that the humanities are in crisis (even if the picture isn’t all that clear), and the authors of the report are happy to stoke that crisis with language about the very security of the nation being thereby imperiled. But the language of the report is as empty as that professor’s letter. Fish notes:
[T]he key words — “framework,” “context,” “complex,” “meaningfully,” “understanding,” “diverse,” “sensitivity,” “perspectives” — are spectacularly empty; just where specificity is needed, sonorous abstraction blunts the edge of what is being asserted, rendering it unexceptionable (no one’s against understanding, complexity and meaningfulness) and without bite.
Grand emotions and grand abstractions attach themselves to talk of the humanities with the implication always that this form of study will make us better people and the world a better place. Like Fish, I see the humanities as “a cloistered and separate area in which inquiry is engaged in for its own sake and not because it yields useful results.” Reading novels like Lolita and The Tropic of Cancer and The Elementary Particles will have God knows what impact on your personal morality and your engagement as a citizen. These are funny, nihilistic, cynical works, and I’d hate to have to be the one to determine their moral or character-building potential. As Georg Lukacs long ago pointed out about Kafka (and what serious education in the humanities is without Kafka?), great writers of our time have a tendency to maunder on inconclusively about the hopelessly alienated consciousness; or they sketch a world with very little collective action in it… Writers like Don DeLillo, America’s greatest living novelist, routinely get called bad citizens.
No, the humanities aren’t evil; and yes, they can help you think about everything. But as Fish points out, they don’t mix well with our current outcomes-based mania, and it’s really not plausible to scare people (as this latest humanities report tries to do) with the degradation to the republic attendant upon insufficient care for them.
UD thanks David.