What’s Wrong with the World

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What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

Why Bother?

English departments, hotbeds of fashionable schools of literary criticism, are slowly emptying out, and William Deresiewicz, examining some of the proximate causes, suggests that the discipline lacks a survival instinct. Conservatives conversant with the bitter struggles over the literary canon and the various theoretical fads that have buffeted the discipline might indulge in a few reveries tinged with schadenfreude, consoling themselves with the thought that perhaps the relativists and radicals are finally receiving their just due; perhaps, however, the causes are more mundane. Perhaps no one really cares anymore:

...the number of students studying English literature appears to be in a steep, prolonged and apparently irreversible decline. In the past ten years, my department has gone from about 120 majors a year to about ninety a year. Fewer students mean fewer professors; during the same time, we've gone from about fifty-five full-time faculty positions to about forty-five. Student priorities are shifting to more "practical" majors like economics; university priorities are shifting to the sciences, which bring in a lot more money. In our new consumer-oriented model of higher education, schools compete for students, but so do departments within schools. The bleaker it looks for English departments, the more desperate they become to attract attention.

Helen Rittelmeyer, Yale student and bright young paleoconservative, comments on Deresiewicz and the emerging apologetic for a liberal education in the modern university, writing that

...apologists like Kronman pose a greater danger to their side than overzealous multiculturalists. To spend so much energy explaining why literature and philosophy are worth four years’ study indicates some anxiety about the answer. After all, business and engineering professors rarely take the time to justify their departments; they assume their students understand that a high salary is directly correlated with ability to purchase goods and services. The benefits of literature and philosophy are less material, but men no more need to be convinced that wisdom is desirable than that love is, or power, or happiness. To presume that students need to be talked into believing literature matters supposes that this is an open question, when really neither side of the canon wars ever doubted that literature was important enough to be worth the fight.

Certainly the articulation of an apologia might be indicative of a crisis of confidence, an intimation that something once taken for granted as having its place in the world now stands in need of explicit justification. And those concerned for the fate of the humanities in a world more than ever determined by cruder, more calculating forces, whether of right or left, would be well advised to formulate more compelling visions of life, as opposed to tacitly conceding the very point that draws so many away from those fields. I'm not persuaded, however, that this is the whole story. I might grant that it is better than half of the story, but, to my way of thinking, excluding the social conditions of the humanities gives one an incomplete picture of of the problem.

Consider Rittelmeyer's words: "...men no more need to be convinced that wisdom is desirable than that love is, or power, or happiness." In point of fact, I do believe that some men require persuasion that wisdom is desirable on its own account, and, moreover, that they require persuasion that wisdom is not merely an instrumental good, something useful for success in practical endeavours, such as amassing wealth. One might protest that I am here talking about knowledge, which is distinct from wisdom, but that is precisely the point: a society such as ours does not make the distinction. We dwell in a society in which such instrumental and pecuniary considerations dominate discourse, in which those who represent such values shape society more profoundly than any intellectuals. Any bright student growing up in such a milieu might not understand that wisdom is an intrinsic, noninstrumental good.

Beyond that, even precocious youngsters interested in the humanities, and appreciative of the importance of humane thought and wisdom, yet cognizant of the sort of society in which we live, might decline to enter those fields, accepting this as a sort of tragic necessity. Certainly, I have known such students. This is not, in the main, a question of the meagre rewards that often accrue to holders of degrees in the humanities; students worried about such things probably tend to fall into the first category, of those who simply don't get the humanities in the first instance. No, students falling into this second category understand the importance of the humanities, and might even be willing to labour in those vineyards for the compensation afforded. What they cannot abide, however, is doing so unrecognized, unrewarded by the recognition of the wider world that what they are sacrificing for is important. No one needs to be persuaded, unless he is mad, that such recognition is a good, just as no sane man needs to be persuaded that love, power, and happiness are goods. And why would you desire to devote your life to such an endeavour if, in the end, it will be, not your learned disquisitions on justice that influence society, but rather the calculating, instrumentalist thoughts of the economist, the average business executive, or the scientist who conflates "can" and "ought"? Conservatives have erred on the side of exaggeration when they have criticized various left-wing professors on grounds of their alleged resentment of business elites; such resentments, if they ever existed, are quite irrelevant to the deeper questions at stake, of whether society will be shaped by utilitarian, quantifying metrics, or substantive, ethical considerations that regulate our necessary material pursuits. In other words, if the social order itself communicates that what one does in the humanities is a mere aesthetic preoccupation, and not something of such gravity that it should shape the way we live, why bother? Why be an irrelevance? Better to take the money and suppress one's misgivings and regrets with a bout of consumerism.

Hence, while I take the point that conservatives and other defenders of the humanities would do well to cease carping about relativism, coming up with appealing alternatives to fashionable decay, I don't believe that this is the only solution. We do need, as a society, to rediscover that there are other goods than the material, and that these former goods possess an authority that the latter do not. A society which forgets this reality has no place for the humanities anyway, save as an atavistic survival, or denatured as consumption goods.

Comments (8)

I think she's wrong that it's a bad idea to argue for the importance of the humanities. Some truths are worth uttering, even repeatedly. If she's bored with such utterances, that's her problem.

I'd also, of course, be happy to see these guys construct a non-postmodern alternative in the humanities and make its fruits as widely available as possible. The two activities are not mutually exclusive, though the "how" and "where" of the second is much more difficult than of the first. You can write a book or a blog post to make the first argument.

Liberal education, true liberal education, always needs its defenders, in both the Christian and the secular worlds. May their memories be for a blessing.

To defend the utilitarians for a moment, the humanities have typically been an indulgence for the rich. And if we are to speak of the literary canon, you'll find few with the appellation Ph.D. I'm not sure I have a meant an English major I have liked, let alone a professor in that field.

In many places, the humanities programs are just glorified high schools for future lawyers.

And if we are to speak of the literary canon, you'll find few with the appellation Ph.D.

But it was not always so. That the field has been destroyed by Vandals and Visigoths is not the fault of the field itself.

Come to think of it, that last comment was an insult to Vandals and Visigoths.

I suppose that my experience with English majors, as with other students of the humanities generally, has been quite the opposite. It was the business majors, the economics majors, and the finance people, with their incessant interrogations of those of us working towards liberal arts degrees, as to why we would study something so unremunerative, who proved irksome. I had a friend who was studying finance and international business, who often broached this subject. How cloying it was.

In many places, the humanities programs are just glorified high schools for future lawyers.

There is a great deal of truth to the observation, but I think that this is a function of that same utilitarianism. In generations and eras past, but a small percentage of those educated in the liberal arts made them a profession; the majority took that learning and sensibility, and allowed it to be diffused through much of their work, and works, in their communities. Whereas, in the present, liberal learning is sometimes nothing more than a path to some other career, which is perceived as more lucrative; liberal learning is not valued in itself. The broader problem of liberal learning is the cultural environment itself; we are content to be ruled by the economist, the calculator, the sophister, since their trifles amuse and entertain us. If we are to recapture the importance of a liberal education, we must return such considerations to their proper, subordinate places.

I guess it is ill mannered to defend oneself, but I must say that there are a few of us still teaching English for the love of literature and of the particular wisdom that it embodies, and we send out students, both English majors and a fair number in other majors, who have learned to love and appreciate literature in this way also. Pray for us as we fight, even in still fairly conservative Christian colleges, to maintain or restore a true vision of the liberal arts -- especially the place of literature in it -- and to find time, energy, and the most effective ways (different for each of us) to articulate that vision, which seems so clear and obvious to us, beyond our classrooms. We often feel like voices crying in the wilderness, and the realities for those of us in small private colleges make it very difficult to look beyond the mere daily urgent needs of our classes. The temptation to give up is stronger every day.

It is true that English departments are usually the worst of the liberal bastions of any college or university. But that isn't the whole of the reality. And while English has its fair share of snobs and other types of fools, they are no more than anywhere else, as far as I've observed. Anyone who wants to meet some funny, winsome, just all-round delightful English profs is welcome to visit my college and meet my colleagues! :)

"while I take the point that conservatives and other defenders of the humanities would do well to cease carping about relativism"

Those who "carp" tend to be those who use their own relative views to fight other's they don't like. We must, however, fight this perversion of truth in earnest with every bit of our reason and ability from the intellectuals like yourselves to the simple man in conversation at the barber shop or the mother with her children. It is a great, evil infection.

"We do need, as a society, to rediscover that there are other goods than the material"

In a way, perhaps the home school movement is doing this. Maybe a little like the culture of life preserved in the monasteries during difficult times of death and destruction, the large home school families, who have discovered generosity towards life and learning will remain to start the schools again and lead amidst the ashes.

When we embrace in the home our God ordained duties of procreation and education of children it transforms the culture. I personally know of kids that read and review, on their own, fine literature for sheer pleasure on homeschoolblogger. I have a lot of hope. I live with it every day. Why bother? Well, I guess the simple answer is that doing what is right is really not a bother. It is actually quite fun sometimes and it's worth it. The fine arts feed well formed minds just like fresh garden veggies feed a well trained diet.

There are some other reasons people don't go in for literary studies, even if they like the works themselves. One is that the modes and apparatus of literary analysis have been, on the whole, quite tedious, and even destructive of the enjoyment of reading. With postmodernism and cultural theory this phenomenon has gotten worse than it was in my day when the "New Criticism" was dominant. Why subject a perfectly good poem or novel to this sort of prodding and poking?

It has also been the case, for several generation, that a disproportionate number of the literati and especially the humanities professoriat have been poofters. Only the most secure and mature non-poofter young men will feel comfortable being mentored by old sods or men imagined to be sods. Like it or not, that's the way it is.

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