27 Jan 2016
Ultimately, colleges have inherited the spiritual mission of churches. As religious beliefs have declined with the rise of science, especially among educated people, people started to turn elsewhere to ask the big questions: What does life mean? What is the world about? People turned to works of art, to literature, music, theater, philosophy, which were in turn brought into college curricula.
That’s what the idea of a humanities education in college is and should be about, but part of that idea has very much declined. It’s not about learning a specific body of information or skills the way other parts of a college education quite properly should be. Studying the humanities is about giving yourself the opportunity to engage in acts of self reflection, seeking answers to the kinds of questions you ask yourself not in a specialized capacity—but in the general capacity of being a human being, as a citizen.
Education, especially that which exists firmly outside of professional and technical training, is on unsteady ground. While it is easy enough to explain why it might be necessary to specialize in nursing or engineering, the value of philosophy and literature studies are understandably harder to quantify. Even the language that I am using reveals the way that the former is so easily caught up in the latter: that which is worthwhile is always already embedded in the world of the measurable. Yet the very tasks of description and qualification fall upon the humanities and, despite protestations otherwise, much of the social sciences.
It is not that these ivory towers have the definitive and absolute answers to the fundamental questions of being in the world (again, despite some protestations otherwise). While I do admit the possibility of categorical truths, the nature of our worldly bodies is that their proofs are ultimately personal experiences. “Is there a god?” might be solvable1; “Does that matter?” is, as far as we understand the human being, not. It is without question that there is a force that we know as gravity. The contours can be explored, defined, and even challenged in some ways, but its worldly existence transcends mere opinion and is fact. Yet its facticity provides little more than a set of guidelines in which we are forced to operate. It rests upon us mortals to delve into the debates over meaning and morality that provide the structure for our uniquely human existence.
Humanities departments, with their drifting and ambling ways, are incubators for precisely that kind of thinking. At least they aim to be; or once did. Whether that occurs today on any sort of grand scale is a live question. It certainly is harder to justify that kind of education in academic institutions amidst the foreground of capital.2 An education in name only. This is an increasingly common complaint from instructors, but it is hard to escape what is a broader societal phenomenon: the leveling out of the human being to nothing more than a unit, equal to any other unit.
This doesn’t negate the responsibility of philosophers to try. It may not be the case that we are teaching for the now. The present moment might not have the necessary conditions to permit students serious and sober self-reflection, but we cannot be certain as to what will result from our actions. We may be planting seeds that do not begin to sprout until years later. As long the mind remains, mindfulness remains a possibility – even if the satisfaction of bearing witness to such revelations is beyond educators. “The cycle of grandiosity and depression” indeed.3
I was once informed by a student that I had no right to tell him what to do because he was paying my salary. It would be a more absurd claim on his part if universities didn’t reinforce it: they treat students as customers, instructors as employees, and the whole interaction as a business transaction in which a certain amount of money was equal to a degree. ↩
Which is certainly not to suggest that I agree with everything that Deresiewicz has to say, but his lamentations are entirely common and, if nothing else, worth consideration. ↩