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Monday, March 20, 2023

Return to the Humanities To Save America

The humanities are in free fall on college campuses today. A recent piece in The New Yorker chronicled a collapse in the number of students studying subjects like English, History, and Philosophy, reporting that a mere “seven per cent of Harvard freshmen planned to major in the humanities.” This phenomenon is widespread: universities as diverse as Ohio State, Notre Dame, Tufts, and Vassar have seen humanities majors cut roughly in half over the past decade.

While humanities majors get stereotyped as navel-gazing eccentrics fit for nothing but careers as baristas, the collapse of the humanities poses a grave threat to the American republic. The loss of humanistic learning contributes to both cultural polarization and popular contempt for social elites, two problems roiling the political landscape in the United States.

Defenders of a traditional liberal arts education, such as 19th-century British saint and scholar John Henry Newman, have long praised the “philosophical habit of mind” that arises from the study of great books and inculcates virtues like “freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom.” These character traits are in short supply in American life today.

In the not-too-distant past, every college-educated American would have had a deep familiarity with a canon of books that provided a common language to understand the common good. These books included classic authors like de Tocqueville, Austen, Shakespeare, Dante, Augustine, and Plato, among others.

Skeptics argue that the historic liberal arts core was dominated by white, male, and Western authors who should be discarded in favor of more diverse and progressive voices. While a case can be made that the canon ought to be expanded to include classics from non-European traditions, it’s vital that students in America learn to understand and appreciate their own civilizational inheritance.

The few college students who major in the humanities today spend most of their mental energy either discussing what secondary or tertiary sources said about a historic text or deconstructing that text in light of contemporary social justice issues. The point of a true liberal arts education, however, is to help students step outside the narrow ideological confines of 21st-century America and experience the distant worldviews and traditions that make up our cultural patrimony.

Harvard campus
CAMBRIDGE, MA – JANUARY 29: A man takes pictures of the snow on campus at Harvard University during a snowstorm on January 29, 2022 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A powerful noreaster brought blinding blizzard conditions with high winds causing widespread power outages to much of the Mid-Atlantic and New England coast. The storm is predicted to drop over 2 feet of snow in some areas.
Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

This perspective enlarges the imaginations of students and provides them with the intellectual and emotional tools needed to address the human problems that we face in our own time. The loss of this shared educational foundation—especially among elites in government, finance, tech, and the media—has impoverished our national culture and contributed to the breakdown of friendship and communication across partisan divides.

To fix the crisis of the humanities, we must first understand the source of the problem. While conservatives rightly complain about the rise of woke ideology and critical theory in the 1960s, there are deeper issues at stake. The first attack on the liberal arts arose from the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries. While advances in science and technology have improved the material lives of billions of people throughout the world and should be generally encouraged, the resulting ideology of scientism that came to dominate universities, which reduced knowledge merely to that which can be measured and weighed by scientific methods and techniques, neglected the validity of humanistic knowledge, which relies on reason and imagination to deduce conclusions about human nature and society.

This ideology is rampant in the contemporary university system, where, according to The New Yorker, the lion’s share of donations and federal funding—billions of dollars—are invested on STEM projects. Cozy financial ties between multinational corporations and college administrators foster a culture that incentivizes a large majority of students at elite colleges to pursue careers in tech, consulting, and finance.

The second attack on the liberal arts came from the democratization of higher education that began with early 20th century progressive reformers like John Dewey and Woodrow Wilson and picked up steam after the Second World War with the G.I. Bill. While the material gains of an expanded, educated middle class should be celebrated as one of the great achievements of the last century, the lowering of academic standards and loss of the traditional liberal arts core curriculum will have profound negative consequences for generations to come.

Paradoxically, to save democracy in America, we must restore the elite project of educating our most promising young leaders in the humanities, which inculcates the habits, virtues, and imagination needed for republican government.

If we are dissatisfied with the tribal nature of public life and the failures of America’s leadership class, the only way forward is through the past. We must return to the humanities to save America.

John A. Burtka IV is the president and chief executive officer of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.

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