oh, the humanities – part one

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Before getting into academic administration I taught film and wrote screenplays. I’ve always liked movies, but not the same way as other film people. I don’t enjoy being on sets, for instance, or have a strong opinion about different movie stars, or whether we shoot on film or video. What draws me is the stories, that can feel like novels brought to life. (Some people who haven’t met her feel a personal connection to Emma Stone; I feel closer to Tess of the d’Urbervilles.)

Colleges and universities have trouble categorizing film departments. Usually we end up in the visual and performing arts, next to painting, dance, photography, and theater. I like the company but never felt a part of it; I get tired at night and I don’t smoke.

Instead I’ve identified with the literature and philosophy people, whose raw material feeds Hollywood. It was a little isolating, a storyteller exiled to live with the artists, like I should have had my own bathroom.

diagramIn college administration for an entire campus, the difference is less stark: arts and humanities are typically grouped together, film courses can land with either group, and the two feel equally dissed by the public’s obsession with STEM, degree production, and gainful employment. We are united in beleagueredness; you can spot us by our short shrifts.

This post will add to the handwringing about the humanities, but in a different way.

Frankly I’m not as worried as others about the prospects for our departments of literature, languages, philosophy, and religion. We have all been stepchildren at least since the Athenian system office poured Socrates a glass of hemlock, and yet we’re all still here. Apparently there’s something inherently necessary about making meaning.

No matter their majors and eventual professions, our students need and want to know how to string together their experiences into something significant. They expect college to help them read purpose into their lives. At denominational institutions they learn one way to do that; at secular comprehensives like mine, they can learn them all.

That urge to assign significance marks my humanist colleagues at committee meetings. In my experience this is truest when they try to talk to social scientists who – burdened with insecurities of their own – resist embellishment of any kind. People in psychology, public policy, and sociology don’t want to make meaning so much as discover it. Crossing that line feels to them like fudging the findings.

Consider this sample paragraph from a text on a subject dear to my heart, student success:

Five years ago the California State University began requiring incoming students to take summer classes before the freshman year, whenever their test scores indicated they were short of college-level proficiency in English, math, or both. As the new policy has covered a greater share of the students who are eligible, the CSU has seen a dramatic reduction in rates of fall remediation. Other factors are also at play; for example, California high schools now encourage more of their students to take rigorous college prep courses. Still, these results suggest the policy is working.

If you take out the last sentence, then to humanists the argument feels incomplete.

But if you leave it in, social scientists will worry that you’ve said more than the evidence supports.

For much of this decade I’ve been a humanist among social scientists, who work in higher education research, learning science, and policy. Their writing often looks to me like all the last sentences are missing. I’ve gotten past longing for my own bathroom door, but I sometimes want a different color in Track Changes.

Yet in the long run these distinctions are a comfort. The urge to assign significance, to answer a why with a because, gives my tribe its staying power. Few may have the nerve to declare a major in philosophy, but we all need a dose.


So then where is the new threat?

Well, in my opinion, for much of our history when we get to the rest of the “because,” we have been kind of cheating.

If you back up to the scale of millennia, then you can see the answer to “why” evolving in a clear direction. As far as we can tell, the earliest humans thought deeply about their purpose and the meaning of their lives. Even before we took our current physical form as Cro-Magnons we were acknowledging our dead in burial rituals, signaling an awareness of our own mortality, and an urge to defy it.

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Most embryonic cultures, including a handful that persist to this day, have venerated the dead and especially their ancestors. Moving forward in time you see the addition of supernatural beings, whether one or many, and myths of origin and destiny. These conceptions of a broader context orient our lives while we’re on earth, setting the tone for business deals, codes of law, and good manners, for example.

In Europe you can mark the apex of this approach around the 13th century, with Aquinas on the eve of the Great Schism and other fissures that challenged the assumption of One True anything beyond our immediate perception – challenges that included contact with cultures elsewhere, who read the invisible universe very differently, yet thrived.

From that point on – roughly the Italian Renaissance and the beginning of secular humanism in its present form – the argument gets strangely circular. Why are humans worth helping? Because they’re human. Why do we work hard? To promote human happiness. Why is human happiness valuable? Uh, it just is, and we take these truths to be self-evident. ‘Nother words, don’t hold your breath waiting for proof.

At a time of disruption and upheaval, at the trading crossroads of dozens of civilizations and three continents, the Italian humanists were relieved to rediscover the ancient Greek resort to the one indisputable universal: Man is the Measure of All Things.

With a tweak since then for gender equality, the slogan has served us surprisingly well for the last six or seven centuries.

library__3153But I think its time is running out, probably within our lifetimes. And for the life of me I’m not seeing a ready replacement.

I worry.

But more on that later.

Image credits: airships.net, National Geographic, fourthdoor.org

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3 thoughts on “oh, the humanities – part one

  1. Ken, I also worry about the flickering glow of the Greeks’ indisputable universal, and share your opinion that it’s in danger of going out. But will that happen because the Greeks’ insight was mistaken, and will finally, after scores of centuries, be irrevocably proven wrong? Can “man is the measure of all things” (perhaps because humans are unique in their capacity for self-consciousness) be revived?

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