Humanities and the Soul

This semester Loyola University Maryland, where I teach, sponsored a weekend symposium on “Democracy and the Humanities.” The occasion was the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the National Endowment for the Humanities, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the enabling legislation on Sept. 29, 1965. The conference featured William Adams, the current chairman of the N.E.H., as a plenary speaker. National representatives from the Phi Beta Kappa Society, the Council of Independent Colleges, the American Council of Learned Societies and the Council of Graduate Schools—scholarly organizations that had helped to make the original case for the establishment of the N.E.H.—also addressed the symposium. Other panels explored current issues in the humanities on campus. I chaired a somewhat mysterious session on the relationship between Ralph Waldo Emerson and St. Ignatius Loyola.

The celebratory weekend recounted N.E.H.’s achievements. Thousands of scholars have received financial support for their research. (Full disclosure: I am the grateful recipient of an N.E.H. grant and am now studying the manuscripts of Madame de Maintenon, the secret wife of Louis XIV, under the eaves of the Municipal Library of Versailles.) Even more impressive have been the N.E.H.’s efforts to bring the humanities out of the classroom and to a broader public. The popular King Tut exhibit and “The Adams Chronicles” on PBS were early, successful N.E.H.-funded projects for a large audience. Not all have been successful, however. As several conference speakers pointed out, the heyday of N.E.H. funding occurred during the Ford and Carter administrations. Since that golden age, the Congressional appropriation for N.E.H. has declined in terms of inflation-adjusted dollars. In the annual budget debate, Congressional voices still rise to condemn the endowment as a luxury for the cultural elite or a bastion of leftist political bias.

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Like any contemporary conference on the humanities, the Loyola symposium quickly turned defensive. The job prospects for those pursuing a doctorate in the humanities are dismal. Few newly minted Ph.D.’s in history or philosophy will ever find a tenure-track position, let alone tenure, in their field of expertise. The Chronicle of Higher Education seems to specialize in horror stories about humanities Ph.D.’s who have descended into the purgatory of permanent adjunct-dom. One recent article recounted the travails of three adjuncting roommates who scrape along on food stamps and weekly visits to the Salvation Army canteen. Politicians readily support increased funding for STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) programs, but funding for recording Appalachian folk tales elicits yawns—or anger.

As core curricula are slashed to virtually nothing and government and foundation funds recede, practitioners of the humanities have become apologists for their beloved but apparently irrelevant fields. Unsurprisingly, the apology often takes a pragmatic turn. Courses in the humanities are praised for the practical skills they foster. Learning a foreign language can enhance one’s prospects for a job in health care. English courses perfect the writing skills necessary in practically any type of work. Philosophy helps people become logical problem-solvers. But this faux-tech reduction of the humanities never quite satisfies. Other apologists defend the humanities as an initiation into human culture: its major texts, artifacts, historical events and leading ideas. But the current postmodern reign of “class/race/gender” approaches to cultural studies only confirms the suspicion that the humanities have become a bejeweled wrapper for political indoctrination.

Our Renaissance ancestors can help shape a more convincing apology for the humanities. With their ardent Platonism, they saw the ultimate stakes in humanist scholarship and education. It concerned the dilation of the soul. Through the reading of Virgil or participation in a philosophical debate or study of the causes of the Peloponnesian War, the soul is roused from the slumber of material routine. The good, the beautiful and the true become enticing—and pesky—next-door neighbors. The cash value of the humanities lies in their capacity to provoke transcendence as the soul awakens to deeper ways of being human. 

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Charles Erlinger
1 year 11 months ago
Father Conley, while nobody has to convince me of the value of the humanities, if the problem you are concerned about is framed in the context of how to make a living as a professional humanities scholar, then I suspect that the more it is discussed, the farther from a satisfactory solution we will be. I suspect that the goals of the "practitioners of the humanities," as you label them, are not the same as the goals of all "lovers of the humanities, or humanists," as I would term someone who just appreciates the humanities. As your quote indicates, "...practitioners of the humanities have become apologists for their beloved but apparently irrelevant fields. Unsurprisingly, the apology often takes a pragmatic turn. Courses in the humanities are praised for the practical skills they foster. Learning a foreign language can enhance one’s prospects for a job in health care. English courses perfect the writing skills necessary in practically any type of work. Philosophy helps people become logical problem-solvers. But this faux-tech reduction of the humanities never quite satisfies. Other apologists defend the humanities as an initiation into human culture: its major texts, artifacts, historical events and leading ideas. But the current postmodern reign of “class/race/gender” approaches to cultural studies only confirms the suspicion that the humanities have become a bejeweled wrapper for political indoctrination...." the utilitarianism that is more or less what is left of our inheritance from the Enlightenment takes over the discussion pretty promptly. But what would be interesting, and you probably know of some work that has been already done on this, is that we should think about how the "Renaissance ancestors" that you refer to actually made a living. Weren't many of them independent by virtue of inheritance or patronage or members of religious congregations? How does that compare with the current dependency on government? Especially in a democratic context, government largesse can be expected to be accompanied by a utilitarian return.
Joseph J Dunn
1 year 11 months ago
The problem described as “The job prospects for those pursuing a doctorate in the humanities are dismal,” and “As core curricula are slashed to virtually nothing and government and foundation funds recede, practitioners of the humanities have become apologists for their beloved but apparently irrelevant fields,” may actually be a two-part business problem. First, the academy has clearly produced more Ph.D.s who fully expect teaching and/or research jobs in their chosen field, without regard for the number of such professionals that might be needed to fill vacancies due to deaths, retirements, etc., plus anticipated growth or shrinkage of student populations. Second, sadly, too many bright people have committed years of post-grad work to attain their credentials, without carefully estimating whether the number of job-seekers in their cohort will exceed the number of available positions. This is equivalent to a hobbyist who decides to open a business because, ‘I like doing this,’ without determining whether customers will want the product in sufficient quantity and at adequate price to support the business. The consequent excessive supply of applicants relative to open positions produces downward pressure on salaries, etc. I suspect that trustees of foundations observe this overabundance, and decide that their funds, which are a finite resource, are more needed elsewhere. As a liberal arts grad, I do appreciate the value of course work devoted to discovering how humans have thought about and acted on the great questions of life. That understanding, though never complete, is valuable in business, politics, medicine, and most other professions. I don’t think the problem reflects a lack of appreciation for the humanities, but a lamentable market imbalance arising from a failure to consider the numbers.
Rebecca Krier
1 year 11 months ago
This is a great comment; I agree. I cherish my liberal arts education, and subsequent masters from divinity school. But I then came to terms with the fact that it would be impractical to pursue those fields as a career, so I went into teaching which has been an incredible gift--I feel no sense of loss or regret that I did not continue to a PhD in the humanities. The value of my liberal arts background is something I draw from everyday, as it colors the way I engage in the world. You don't need a PhD for that.
Richard Murray
1 year 11 months ago
Good teachers, especially at the university level, also benefit from PhD's. Universities should be cherishing the Humanities, not diminishing them. This is also part of a larger conversation: What is a university education for?
Richard Murray
1 year 11 months ago
Fr. Conley, your last paragraph is a gem. Thank you.
Henry George
1 year 11 months ago
The teaching of the Humanities would prosper if teachers did not assign so many books and such long readings for each class meeting. Being assigned 14 books to read in one 10 week quarter made it impossible to savour what the "Great Writers" had to say. Carve and tailor your course to meet the needs of your students can only help. A professor who insists on teaching "To the Lighthouse" to a group of engineering students may want to reconsider given that most engineering majors, at age 18, are just not that into Stream of Consciousness writing...
Richard Booth
1 year 10 months ago
I happened to be scouring past issues of America Magazine and came across this article. It is a fair, balanced statement of the issues surrounding the Humanities within a reductionistic, mechanistic culture. But, when the author wrote: " but funding for recording Appalachian folk tales elicits yawns—or anger," he says much more than the words themselves convey. Attention to the unheard has been the object of rhetoric for many years, but it is in constant conflict with the so-called "steep gradient" or upwardly mobile drive that constantly keeps the unheard unheard. We may call ourselves a Christian culture, but the central element is missing, namely, providing the circumstances within which Appalachia and similar communities are valued. This, I believe, would be the equivalent of love - attending to those whose lives and stories are off to the side. '

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