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.