Dennen on the Liberal Arts

Over at The New Atlantis website, Patrick Deneen of Georgetown University has a wonderfully provocative and thoughtful essay about the ways in which the pursuit of “science” has caused the decline of the liberal arts and the humanities in American colleges and universities. Here is just a small snippet from a piece that needs to be read in its entirety:

In response to these tectonic shifts, the humanities began to question their place within the university. Their practitioners still studied the great texts, but if the practice remained the same, the purpose was increasingly unclear. Did it make sense any longer to teach young people the challenging lessons of how to use freedom well, when increasingly the scientific world seemed to make those lessons unnecessary? Could an approach based on culture and tradition remain relevant in an age that valued, above all, innovation and progress? How could the humanities prove their worth, in the eyes of administrators and the broader world?

These doubts within the humanities became the fertile seedbed for self-destructive tendencies. Informed by Heideggerian theories that placed primacy on the liberation of the will, first poststructuralism and then postmodernism took root. These and other approaches, while apparently hostile to the rationalist claims of the sciences, were embraced out of the need to conform to the academic demands being set by the natural sciences, especially for “progressive” knowledge. Faculty could demonstrate their progressiveness by showing the backwardness of the texts; they could “create knowledge” by showing their own superiority to the authors they studied; they could display their anti-traditionalism by attacking the very books that were the basis of their discipline. Philosophies that preached “the hermeneutics of mistrust,” that exulted in exposing the way texts were deeply informed by inegalitarian prejudices, and that even questioned the idea that texts contained a “teaching” at all, offered the humanities the possibility of proving themselves relevant in the terms set by the modern scientific approach. By adopting a jargon only comprehensible to a few “experts,” they could emulate the scientific priesthood — betraying the original mandate of the humanities to guide students through the cultural inheritance and teachings of the classic books. Professors in the humanities showed their worth by destroying the thing they studied.