Heart Ache: A Wretched Defense of the Humanities

Peter Wood

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences has just issued The Heart of the Matter, a 61-page report (plus appendices) aimed at persuading Congress to spend more money on the humanities. This is one of the report’s immediate goals, phrased of course in the financial imperative, “Increase investment in research and discovery.” The report as a whole is presented as a response to a “bipartisan request from members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives” in 2010. The American Academy took up this request and appointed a 54-member commission to figure out what “actions” are needed to “maintain national excellence in humanities and social scientific scholarship.”

Let’s see. That works out to 1.1296 pages of report per commissioner. Many of the commissioners also appear in a 7-minute accompanying video, which begins with the actor (and commissioner) John Lithgow explaining that the humanities are the “beautiful flower” at the end of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math.) With a piano softly playing Christian Sinding’s Rustles of Spring in the background and a camera exploring the petals of a yellow gerbera, Lithgow continues, “Without the blossom, the stem is completely useless.” Cut to George Lucas, Rustling Spring pianissimo: “The sciences are the how and the humanities are the why.” Cut to the Milky Way with Lucas’s voiceover, segueing to architect Billie Tsien, “The measurable is what we know and the immeasurable is what the heart searches for.”

The video portion of The Heart of the Matter is beautifully produced, as I suppose one might expect from a commission that included Ken Burns as well as George Lucas. But it is, I suspect, not terribly persuasive. It comes across as the high-minded extolling high-mindedness and perhaps thinking a little too well of themselves for their act of generosity. 

The humanities does get the privilege of contemplating some of the more uplifting aspects of our kind. Courage, kindness, and faithfulness come within its compass. But so too do humanity’s deepest dyed iniquities. It takes a humanist to plumb treason’s serpentine pride; to come alongside Othello’s green-eyed monster; or to exalt over the corpses of his enemies with Achilles. That side of things is, let’s say, not part of the pitch in the video or the report.

Although it may have a ghost-like presence in the title. The Heart of the Matter, of course, was the title of Graham Green’s great post-war novel about a guilt-ridden British policeman in colonial West Africa whose altruism is confounded by his fecklessness. His final act of supposed generosity is suicide, but even that fails to achieve its intended purpose. 

But I rather doubt that the Commission was being so ironic. Its tone is much too sententious to have reckoned with the possibility that the humanities have charted a course in recent years in which high aspiration is so inextricably mixed with self-destruction.

The opening statements on the video do quite accurately capture the anxiety at the heart of the report itself. The sciences are thriving. Captains of industry, political leaders, and the opinion-shapers of all sorts thunder about the importance of educating the coming generation in the sciences. Are the humanities to be left in the dust? 

It is a fate not easily skirted. The New York Times put the report in context by noting the mere 7.6 percent of bachelor’s degrees granted in the humanities in 2010 and the long, steep slide in humanities majors at Harvard from 36 percent of the undergraduates in 1954 to 20 percent today. Where have the students gone? It is not that they are defecting en mass to biomedical engineering or fractal geometry. The burgeoning undergraduate majors are fields such as business, economics, and international relations. Economics can be squeezed into the humanities, and the Commission does mention economics as one of the valuable social sciences, but it doesn’t really appear to be “the heart of the matter.”

The report is actually a bit vague about what the humanities actually are. The executive summary throws a wide lasso:

Emphasizing critical perspective and imaginative response, the humanities—including the study of languages, literature, history, film, civics, philosophy, religion, and the arts—foster creativity, appreciation of our commonalities and our differences, and knowledge of all kinds. The social sciences reveal patterns in our lives, over time and in the present moment. Employing the observational and experimental methods of the natural sciences, the social sciences—including anthropology, economics, political science and government, sociology, and psychology—examine and predict behavioral and organizational processes. Together, they help us understand what it means to be human and connect us with our global community.

Wide lassos are good equipment for capturing concepts as big as “the humanities,” but the Commission’s list lacks the basic sense of order. It comes close to admitting that the humanities are just the category of “everything else” after you subtract the sciences from the curriculum. 

But let’s take the formulation at face value. The key ideas are (1) critical perspective, (2) imaginative response, (3) creativity, (4) appreciation of commonalities and differences, (4) knowledge of all kinds, and adding the social sciences, (5) examining and predicting behavior. All these together conduce to (6) understanding what it means to be human, and (7) connecting us to our global community. If you take the first item seriously (“critical perspective,”) the rest of the list looks a little wobbly. That’s because the natural sciences are every bit as creative, focused on human commonalities and differences (think of DNA), deal in “knowledge,” etc. What it means to be human is at least as much a scientific question as a humanistic one.

I don’t really want to be obstructionist. The humanities are important and, in principle, deserve a robust defense. But I have to wonder how carefully thought-out The Heart of the Matter is. If the goal was merely to perform some old songs from the songbook, or to twirl the lasso around in lasso tricks, I guess these bland formulations will do. But it would have been nice to see an intellectually more serious effort. The humanities haven’t existed forever. They are a division of human inquiry and teaching that grew out of a particular tradition. Humanistic learning was, for many generations, deemed essential for the man who sought to enter public life, and it was also taken as the indispensable grounding for the worthy life of a free individual. 

Those views may have been mistaken, but mistaken or not, they no longer have much grip on Americans. We have been slowly dispensing with humanistic learning for a very long time. Think back to Justin Morrill, the Vermont Congressman who in the midst of the Civil War succeeded in passing the bill that authorized the creation of the land grant universities. Morrill fiercely opposed having the humanities play any part in these new institutions. His opposition was eventually worn away by the universities themselves, but he stands as perhaps the best expression of 19th America’s distrust of the humanistic tradition. How many Harvard graduates did America need? Morrill thought, "not so many."

The great 20th-century democratization of higher education was intermittently friendly toward the humanities but mass higher education is not really a great fit with the strenuous ideal that students should wrestle with the obdurate materials of human excellence and folly. Mass education throws its emphasis on credentialing students for productive and prosperous careers. The humanities occasionally lend themselves to that purpose, but it isn’t their primary business. 

We can inventively shoehorn the humanities into serving practical goals. And that indeed is what the Commission seeks to do. Study the humanities, it says, because if we don’t there will be “grave, long-term consequences for the nation.” ut what they mean is that mass literacy is a good idea; voters and consumers should be “informed”; lots of “resources” should be available online; teachers should be well-prepared (and have their student loans forgiven!); foreign languages should be taught; and we should encourage more study abroad. That’s not the whole list of desiderata but the rest of it is similar—practical policy proposals that have thin connections to the humanities as such. 

Unless, of course, you redefine the humanities as whatever college professors in the traditional humanities disciplines happen to be teaching at the moment. 

And that seems to be the whole game. The Commission pretends to speak with the authority of Erasmus or Diderot about the importance of a human-centered curriculum, but all it really musters is the voice of a middling utilitarian. Reading the report brought to mind Jonathan R. Cole’s The Great American University. Cole, a former Columbia University provost, delivered this tome several years ago in which he rehearsed the great accomplishments—mostly in the sciences—of American research universities as part of an argument for more and still more public funding. 

The Heart of the Matter has still other ventricles. For unknown reasons, the Commissioners devote several pages to plumping the importance of the Common Core State Standards for K-12 education. Whatever the merits of those standards, they have virtually nothing to do with improving the situation of college-level humanities. Possibly they cut in the opposite direction through their emphasis on reading “informational texts” and their pedagogical focus on minimizing attention to historical context and background knowledge. But in The Heart of the Matter, we get eight pages of explanation of how the Common Core will strengthen literacy, prepare citizens, and support teachers. 

The Commission was co-chaired by Richard Brodhead and John Rowe. Rowe is the retired chairman of Exelon Corporation, who has contributed a lot of time, attention, and money to promoting charter schools.Brodhead is the president of Duke University and I suppose such an established figure that, at least in the eyes of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he has lived down his infamous behavior during the Duke lacrosse affair. Perhaps in polite company that shouldn’t be mentioned, but I confess I was astonished to see him put forward as the primary academic figure behind this report. If we are to make the case for the humanities as the ennobling part of higher education, might it be better to do so under the symbolic leadership of someone who has modeled courage, temperance, and faithfulness to the actual ideals of disinterested judgment?

But that’s just a petal falling from the “beautiful flower.” The video, with Rustles of Spring tinkling underneath the somber voices of Yo-Yo Ma, Earl Lewis, David Brooks, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Sandra Day O’Connor, etc. is little more than a parade of balloons but it has the charm of well-picked metaphors. The report, alas, has not even that. 

Is there a better way to promote the humanities? I am inclined to think the humanities thrive when the humanists are self-evidently offering good and important work. The humanities decline when they descend into triviality. The answer to a nation skeptical of these disciplines is not more balloons, nor better metaphors, or even better-crafted reports. It is better work.

This article originally appeared on Minding the Campus on June 23, 2013.

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