Are Humanists Killing the Humanities?

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Check out Eric Adler‘s piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education: “When Humanists Undermine the Humanities.”  Adler teaches classics at the University of Maryland.

Here is a taste:

Paeans to a literary work’s power and beauty seem faintly embarrassing and out of place in academic scholarship. After all, scholars don’t want to receive the same scorn that Speaking for the Humanities doled out to “belle lettrists who unselfconsciously sustain traditional hierarchies, traditional social and cultural exclusions, assuming that their audience is both universal and homogenous.” As if that weren’t a sufficient admonition, in a 1991 column in The Chronicle, Paula Rothenberg contended that “the traditional curriculum teaches all of us to see the world through the eyes of privileged, white, European males and to adopt their interests and perspectives as our own.” Consider yourselves warned, fans of Homer, Virgil, and Shakespeare!

Without a reinvigoration of aesthetic criteria in the humanities, the enterprise of humanists is doomed. Already the sick man on sundry campuses, the study of literature and the arts will never survive without recovering the means to defend its value on its own terms. This is not to say that we should turn a blind eye to diversity and inclusiveness. After all, the culture wars were fruitful in helping demonstrate that a variety of cultural traditions are home to works of great beauty and profundity.

But we must recognize that in some key respects, the traditionalists of the academic culture wars were correct. Aesthetic quality and intellectual import are key ingredients in the defense of the humanities, wherever they may be found. Without such ingredients, well-meaning advocates are left with impoverished justifications for undergraduate courses in literature and the arts.

In an 1884 speech defending the compulsory collegiate study of ancient Greek, Daniel Henry Chamberlain, a Yale and Harvard graduate and onetime governor of South Carolina, included specific appeals to the value of individual works of Greek literature. “Of the works of Plato it may be said that, apart from the thought which they contain, they are true literary masterpieces,” Chamberlain said. Without kindred sentiments from the pens of unembarrassed humanists, the study of literature and the arts on American college campuses is in danger of dying altogether.

Read the entire piece here.