Plato, Call Your Office

Plato, wondering why Harvard students don't major in the humanities. (Courtesy of Wikimedia.)

The ghost of Socrates strikes again. Fr. Raymond Schroth, S.J., wrote about the humanities in the most recent issue of America, an article that I highlighted last week in this space. Fr. Schroth was responding to The Heart of the Matter, a report issued by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.  

Now comes the January issue of First Things and Samuel Goldman's article, "Harvard and the Humanities," which responds to another report sounding the humanities' alarms. (It's here, but behind a paywall.)


In the article, Goldman, associate professor of political science at George Washington University, responds to Mapping the Future, a report issued by Harvard's Arts and Humanities Division. The report, according to Goldman (I have not read the report) "asks why fewer and fewer students concentrate on history, literature, philosophy, languages, or the arts."

Harvard's answer? In the words of Goldman: "After dismissing arguments that the decline is unique to Harvard or caused by economic insecurity," says Goldman, "the report places much of the blame on the faculty. Humanities professors alienate students because they have elevated specialized research and are often deaf to moral dissent."

Of Harvard's self-admonishing Goldman is much in praise. We should welcome the report, he writes, "and continue to argue that the humanities can revive themselves by returning to their original vocation as an investigation of man's predicament between heaven and earth, God and beast."

It's neither wise nor fair of me to judge a report I haven't read, siphoning my conclusions from the review of another. So I won't do that, but I do want to draw attention to one of Goldman's conclusions because it speaks to the questions I posed last week, namely: in today's milieu, which prizes the part over the whole, matter over mystery, how do we who love the humanities convey their urgent value?

Goldman dismisses one approach:

The report properly rejects the expectation that humanities students become professors. But it announces instead that the ideal graduate with a humanities degree would be an "internationally competent mediator of cultural history." What on earth does this mean? That a degree in the humanities prepares one to be a kind of tour guide, qualified to translate the treasures of one civilization into the demotic idiom of another? If that's the goal of the humanities, no wonder students prefer economics.

Goldman favors another approach, one that echoes the conclusions of Fr. Schroth:

It is reflective both of the virtues and the flaws of Mapping the Future that it discusses Aristophanes but hardly mentions Plato, except to dismiss his putative hatred of rhetoric. In other words, it recognizes the problem but ignores the best solution that history offers. For Plato, the kind of inquiries that we call the humanities were not simply a path to knowledge. They were a royal road to the only life worthy of a human being.

You can read the Harvard report here and Fr. Schroth's article here. And if you're really feeling the intellectual adrenaline, you can read the complete works of Plato (courtesy of MIT) here.


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Frank Lesko
5 years 2 months ago
I have never considered the arrogance of humanities professors as a reason for the decline in the popularity of philosophy and the other humanities. Something to ponder. When I consider the decline in the humanities, I usually boil it down to this: 1. Increased association in our culture between education and gainful employment. 2. General trend in education toward technical skills rather than critical thinking (and I am convinced the first two have been a part of a concerted effort to reduce public political participation and increase malleability of the masses). 3. The humanities are often belittled for being blow-off classes where everyone gets an "easy A." Their reputation is that they attract students who just can't hack it in the more rigorous courses, such as the hard sciences (the social sciences may fare even worse in this regard). Whether this is deserved or not, this reputation hurts their standing and prestige. A degree in English is not going to get you a lot of ooo's and ah's from anybody. 4. Multiculturalism. With the decline in the classics and the rise in multiculturalism, the humanities have taken a beating. I wish there were a way to honor and explore the various intellectual traditions of the world without somehow losing a common foundation for our culture. By bypassing the former cornerstones of western civilization, we lost a common language among our intellectuals. In other words, education has become more individualized and less of a community endeavor. You can't just drop a quote from Othello into a conversation and expect that the other intellectuals in the room are going to understand the reference at all or bring with them a common range of associations. We are afraid of advancing one school of thought at the risk of being accused of being myopic, ethnocentric or racist. Perhaps I'm conflating the classics with the humanities in general, but I think they have shared a common fate. Until this tension is resolved, I think they will continue to suffer. As much as I like the contributions of multiculturalism, I wish we had an environment where every graduating college student had a working knowledge of Shakespeare, a foundation in Greek or Latin, fluency in logic and rhetoric, finesse is handling the arguments of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther/Trent, just to name a few... and to have a basic understanding of the major periods of development in art, philosophy and science... and not just to learn the facts but to delve into the major debates of those people and periods. So in a sense, perhaps this does coincide with the views of this article that humanities professors have "elevated specialized research." It's not that it's elevated--physics professors have elevated research, too. It's that the humanities professors are operating in worlds that are completely foreign to mainstream culture. They are speaking a different language and operating from a fundamentally different worldview and educational philosophy than mainstream culture, and ne'er the twain shall meet. Study philosophy? It's downright counter-cultural.


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