Rescuing the Humanities from its Advocates

There’s been a lively and useful public conversation, of late, over the value of the study of the humanities, fueled for the most part by recent economic crises. Those crises have caused, in some corners, a push toward making university education more “marketable” by focusing more on vocational and technical training and less on what have traditionally been called the “liberal arts.” A number of commentators have come to the humanities’ rescue, however–but I have to confess I’m beginning to wonder about some of them. Beginning to wonder, specifically, if what is put forward as defenses of the humanities are not, in fact, a subtle–and quite partisan–attack thereon.

The most prominent case-in-point is New York Times columnist David Brooks, who’s come swooping in to the humanities’ rescue in several recent speeches and editorials. In many ways, I appreciate what Brooks has been saying. I agree with his broadest point, which is simply that education has to be about learning to be human, about making meaning out of the confusing world around us, and not just about making a living within it. However, Brooks’ partisanship does tend to poke through in ways that may be as damaging to public attitudes about the study of the humanities as his other comments might be helpful. Consider, for instance, the following passage from an otherwise “pro-humanities” editorial by Brooks in the NYT (June 20, 2013):

But the humanities are not only being bulldozed by an unforgiving job market. They are committing suicide because many humanists have lost faith in their own enterprise.

Back when the humanities were thriving, the leading figures had a clear definition of their mission and a fervent passion for it. The job of the humanities was to cultivate the human core, the part of a person we might call the spirit, the soul, or, in D.H. Lawrence’s phrase, “the dark vast forest.”

This was the most inward and elemental part of a person. When you go to a funeral and hear a eulogy, this is usually the part they are talking about. Eulogies aren’t résumés. They describe the person’s care, wisdom, truthfulness and courage. They describe the million little moral judgments that emanate from that inner region.

The humanist’s job was to cultivate this ground — imposing intellectual order upon it, educating the emotions with art in order to refine it, offering inspiring exemplars to get it properly oriented.

Somewhere along the way, many people in the humanities lost faith in this uplifting mission. The humanities turned from an inward to an outward focus. They were less about the old notions of truth, beauty and goodness and more about political and social categories like race, class and gender. Liberal arts professors grew more moralistic when talking about politics but more tentative about private morality because they didn’t want to offend anybody.

To the earnest 19-year-old with lofty dreams of self-understanding and moral greatness, the humanities in this guise were bound to seem less consequential and more boring.

On the one hand, Brooks’ comment seems to support study in the humanities by noting that it’s part of learning how to be human, to “cultivate the human core.” But then it descries the humanities for leaving that behind to focus on more “external” issues like race, class, and gender, and not-so-subtly attacks those who teach the humanities for forgetting that “human core” in favor of imposing their “ivory tower” agenda on their students, robbing the humanities of their true purpose.

The problem is that consideration of things like race, class, gender, and even of applying what we might call “theory” to the humanities is not, as Brooks implies, some kind of brand new, externally imposed set of values and distinctions that humanists have artificially foisted upon their material. Brooks fails to realize that such issues are endemic to the study of the humanities, not an artificial imposition of unrelated ideas.

For example, one of the first texts we have students read in what we call the “Western Humanities” program (a four-semester “great books” program that integrates study of history, philosophy, theology, art, and literature in a four-semester chronological framework) at the university where I work is the “Funeral Oration” of Pericles in Thucydides’ History of the Pelopponesian War. After exhorting the citizens of Athens to greater sacrifice in their ongoing military endeavors, he adds:

On the other hand, if I must say anything on the subject of female excellence to those of you who will now be in widowhood, it will be all comprised in this brief exhortation. Great will be your glory in not falling short of your natural character; and greatest will be hers who is least talked of among the men, whether for good or for bad.

His speech is often regarded as one of the great “humanist statements,” but here, in one of its final sentences, Pericles makes it clear that the only people with the status of full human in his culture are male citizens. To women who might lament seeing their husbands and sons sacrificed to Pericles’ imperialist project, he simply says “keep your mouths shut.” Thucydides, of course, was under no compunction to include that idea in his record (or fabrication) of Pericles’ speech–so, clearly, he’s aware, and making us aware, that there’s something odd going on there.

We also read the works of people like Walter Rauschenbush and Jane Addams, both devout Christians who, seeing widespread poverty and exploitation of masses of people in the wake of the industrial revolution, see that their fellow Christians are clearly not crossing boundaries of class in order to care for one another as human beings.

We sometimes read the Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, who painfully narrates what it is like to be captured, sold, forced onto a stinking slave ship and then treated as property. As a Christian himself, he highlights the disconnect involved in being a Christian human being–just one with dark skin–in the midst of a European culture that we sometimes say was driven at the time by a philosophy of “Christian Humanism.” When we read the works of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Howard Thurman and others, we realize that the legacy of the culture from which Equiano spoke is still with is in many ways.

In other words, as we read the central “great texts” of the “Western Humanities” we see that one of the big questions in that tradition, one of the central dilemmas involved in exploring the human condition, is the problem of who gets to count as fully human in the first place. Most of the authors we read, then, as humanists, most of the very “great books” that even the most conservative advocate of the dead-white-dude canon would advocate as essential texts in the humanities, are centrally concerned with the ways in which we differentiate the value of persons on the bases of (here it comes) race, class, and gender. One of the central things they notice is that the dark underbelly of the “humanist” tradition is that it some people get to be more human than others.

This is where I find Brooks’ argument potentially contradictory, and even potentially dangerous in terms of advocacy for the humanities: how can we understand what he calls the “human core” without acknowledging that the very “great books” we have used in western culture to study that human core are often centrally concerned the ways in which we use race, class, and gender to divide ourselves and cut some people off from full humanity? To study those things is not, and never has been, an aberration of the study of the humanities. How could humanists be “bulldozing their own enterprise,” as Brooks puts it, by inquiring into issues that have been central concerns of the most canonical “great books” in the western tradition since at least the 5th century B.C.? How could we be making the study of the humanities more esoteric by studying those things in a world in which the very issues of race, class, and gender they address are still some of the most divisive and in-the-headlines problems in our contemporary culture?

Another way of summarizing Brooks’ argument in this light, then, might be to say that Brooks believes that humanists are hamstringing their discipline precisely by engaging in the serious study of the humanities. Fantastic.

To boil it down another way (and include other recent arguments of the same ilk), Brooks and friends seem to believe that:

  • The humanities should study the “great works;” we should study and teach things like the works of Martin Luther King, Jr., Frederick Douglass, Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Upton Sinclair, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman–but we should do so without reference to narrow, effete, ivory-tower, politically-loaded concepts like race, class, or gender.
  • The humanities should emphasize the degree to which a liberal arts education should be more than just an immediate, instrumental path to immediate employment after graduation, by emphasizing all the jobs you can get right after graduation with a liberal arts education.
  • We should emphasize how the humanities provides a deeper understanding of our world and what it means to be human, but we should do so without getting narrow, specific, or technical in our studies. We should talk about all the ways in which the humanities is capable of providing great depth of understanding, but without actually exploring any particular thing in much depth.
  • We should concentrate on the ability of study in the humanities to provide useful frameworks for understanding and organizing their broad experience as human beings in the world–but we should do so without reference to anything that might smack of esoteric, technical academic insider-speak, like “theory.” In other words, we should help students theorize their existence, but without actually engaging in any theory.
  • We should promote the value of the study of the humanities unless students become so convinced of their value that they express the desire to study them past the undergraduate level, in which case we should tell them that’s the worst thing they could possibly do because it makes no practical economic sense. (As a case in point, see Rebecca Schuman’s April 5 Slate article.
  • While scholarship in the sciences that deals with such topics as “Human Airway Epithelial Secretions Inhibit the Formation of Pseudomonas aeruginosa Biofilms” should be considered admirable and noble applications of scientific metholodogies that can provide important insights to a broader field, as well as precisely the kind of specificity required to engage in meaningful scientific study, papers in the humanities (taken from the most recent Modern Language Association Convention) on such subjects as “Why Teach Literature?” and ““Laughing to Keep from Crying”: Pain and Humor” should be considered the meaningless products of an over-specialized, politically-indoctrinated, radically left-wing professorial elite completely detached from the realities of contemporary life.

At the end of the day, I wonder whether some of the most influential enemies of the humanities might be some of those posing as its most vocal advocates.

Written with StackEdit.

Neighboring Texts, Christian Literary Theory, and A Few Dodgy Sandwiches

A little background on my previous entry:

Last summer, I had the privilege of presenting a paper at a panel called “Romance and the Neighbor/Stranger” at the New Chaucer Society conference (held in Portland, OR, which meant that I spent about a third of my time listening to wonderful papers, another third geeking out with a submarine service vet aboard the USS Blueback and the other third making myself ill on street-cart food). I was presenting on the odd Scottish “neighbors” that show up in a late 14th century English romance known as the Stanzaic Morte Arthure, but the highlight of the conference, though I didn’t quite realize it at the time, was a short conversation, after that panel, with a scholar named George Edmonson (which I’m sure he doesn’t remember). He and several others had mentioned his recent book The Neighboring Text: Chaucer, Boaccacio, Henryson in the context of some really fascinating conversations, so, of course, my first act upon returning home was to devour that book.

It turned out to be my favorite kind of scholarly book: the kind that creates lively conversation and interaction between text and reader, the kind that opens up new and fruiful ways of thinking about texts, and the kind that is every bit as useful and enlightening in the spots where I found myself disagreeing with the writer’s conclusions about a text as it was in the moments where I found myself nodding vigorously. It’s a book that’s been, in Edmondson’s own sense of the term, a very good neighbor over the past few months.

The book isn’t an easy one for those without a pretty solid initiation in the terminology of Lacanian psychoanalysis, but I can talk about it here because, in many ways, the book’s most brilliant idea is also its simplest: Texts, like people, can be neighbors. Neighbors that one might love as one’s self.

Edmonson’s study is ostensibly a comparative one, using Chaucer, Boccacio, and the Scottish poet Robert Henryson as its main subjects. Edmondson points out that relationships between these texts (and between texts in medieval literary studies generally) has most often been conceived in terms of genealogical metaphors, ideas of kinship, lineage, influence, and power: which texts are the fathers and mothers of which others? Which texts were enacting influence and pressure on others (a hard question in a field where dating texts can be a problem)? Which manuscripts derive from which others in “family trees” of textual transmission? Edmondson’s simple-but-brilliant innovation is to switch metaphors: “What would happen,” Edmonson writes, “if we began to think about relations between certain readers and certain texts as ones of neighboring, defined by proximity and carrying the weight of an event…what would happen if we pushed the matter further and, employing the same logic of “miscelleneity” that governed seemingly random arrangements of medieval manuscripts, began to think about the relations among certain texts as ones of neighboring rather than kinship?” (4). That switch, from metaphors of kinship to those of neighboring, raises a number of intriguing possibilities for thinking about literary relationships–not to mention human ones–that extend well beyond Edmonson’s medieval subject matter. Edmonson notices that “the neighbor [like the text] is both intimate and strange, both proximate and remote, both reassuring and threatening,” and that it may make sense to “describe relations between readers and texts as an ambivalent mixture of sympathetic understanding, misrecognition, and, in come cases, mutual aggression” (8).

I think there are a great many useful implications of thinking about texts this way, but the one I’m interested in in this particular venue is its potential value for those scholars of literatures and cultures who, like myself, engage in their scholarship at institutions that explicitly identify with a religious faith, particularly Christianity. In that case, the idea of “loving one’s neighbor as one’s self” is, of course, not just an interesting ethical idea one can trace through Freud, Kierkegaard, Buber, Lacan, Rienhard, and others (though it is most certainly that), but also a direct commandment from the central figure of that faith that the practicitioner is under the clearest of imperatives to follow. Bringing such an idea to a text, I suspect, can lead to some very useful questions (I posed these, with astoundingly productive effect, to my Senior Seminar students this past Spring): What is one’s goal as a reader/scholar of a text? To get something out of it? Make it, like a torture victim, cough up its secrets? Extract a resource? Control or contain what’s troubling about it? Or does one, as the imperative to love the neighbor as onesself might direct, decide to do what the Samaritan in the parable does: open one’s self to an encounter with an Other, approached as such, with all it’s own potentially disturbing, disruptive difference and desire intact, acknowledging responsibility for the fact that one is going to find things in it that are potentially threatening, incomprehensible, incommensurable with and even dangerous to one’s own identity and “worldview” and love those things in it. Even love them as yourself.

I’m wondering what such a practice might look like. How might it change the ways in which one reads, what one looks for in an encounter with a text? Can I become open to surprising, unsettling, and even dangerous encounters without trying to contain that danger–either through the pre-emptive employment of other frameworks or after-the-fact attempts at explaining it away, much less acts of dismissal or rejection? The most common paradigm in what’s sometimes called “Christian Literary Criticism,” like most ideologically-oriented schools of thought, seems prone to such acts, a critical methodology that insists on comparing every text with a laundry list of doctrinal propositions said to constitute a ‘Christian worldview.’ That kind of exclusive ‘worldview,’ conceived as a set of characteristics designed to mark texts or people as falling within or without a particular category, is, after all, precisely what Christ himself seems to warn us against in his parable–the Samaritan is the “good” one precisely because, as we’ve already explored in the previous entry, he acts in mercy without regard to category. Applying the imperative to love the neighbor to texts, perhaps, can allow for an approach to literary texts that is at once distinctively Christian (in that it starts with an application of Christ’s primary commandment) while remaining fully open to the suffering, the difference, the danger of every wounded pilgrim we pass.


Inaugurating a new blog with a brief series of posts on a topic that’s become increasingly fascinating to me of late: the idea of the neighbor. Starting with, well, one of that idea’s earlier and more significant theorists…

Jesus Christ doesn’t generally get the credit he deserves for being an interesting theorist.

One of my favorite moments in this vein is the parable of the Good Samaritan in the tenth chapter of Luke. Therein, a lawyer asks Jesus what he must to do inherit eternal life. Jesus responds with a deceptively logocentric-seeming question: “What is written in the law?” The lawyer appropriately answers with the old Levitical saw: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus affirms the answer, but the Lawyer–pushing his luck, and, according to Luke, wanting to “justify himself,” asks, with what I always imagine as a smug, know-it-all smirk, what he thinks a clever question: “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus responds with the well-known parable, which deconstructs the Lawyer’s glib question in a manner that would make Derrida envious. The parable does this by pulling the rug out from under the lawyer’s question, rendering the quesiton absurd in relation to the command. To accomplish this, Jesus brilliantly reverses the expected subject-object relation in the story: the lawyer, after all, is asking to whom he should be a neighbor, which might lead one to expect a parable in which a Judean, like the lawyer, is the one in a position to be neighborly. Jesus turns that position on its ear, making the Judean in the story the object rather than the subject, the one in need of a neighbor, not the one in a position to be one. The Judean protagonist of the parable, then, watches as his compatriots in the upper echelons of the society of which he is a part, using a twisted concept of their own law, wind up ruling out their own most obvious neighbor (a fellow orthodox Judean Jew) as such. That, of course, is precisely what the lawyer was attempting to do with his question: rule out potential neighbors. After all, the question “who is my neighbor” assumes that the command hinges on a differentiation between two sides of a binary: those who are one’s neighbors, and those who are not. Jesus, in his response, out-Derridas Derrida by not only showing that the lawyer is engaging in binary thinking and that his binary is far from stable, but also in showing that binary thinking itself lies entirely outside the discursive and ethical universe of the commandment in question. In terms of the way in which the lawyer applies his own law, the one in need of a neighbor is ruled out as such by members of his own community. He even rules himself out: if the protagonist in the parable is a stand-in for the lawyer, then he is as ritually unclean to himself as he is to the Levite and the Priest. Applying the question “who is my neighbor?” to the commandment to love one’s neighbor as one’s self, then, excludes the lawyer-protagonist from both neighborhood and selfhood.

Jesus provides a solution to this dilemma in the figure of the Samaritan. It is important that Jesus identifies him as such–through a cultural label–as doing so creates an ironic, needling reference to the very kind of cultural exclusion and categorization the lawyer, through his question, wants to apply to the neighbor: the Samaritan is a member of a cultural “them” as opposed to the laywer’s “us.” Samaritans were regarded by Judeans as practitioners of a heretical perversion of Judaism, unclean, despised, possibly violent and dangerous. That categorization makes it all the more astonishing that the Samaritan in the story disregards all such categories and simply identifies with the protagonist in his suffering humanity. His action is a bit like a benign version of a return of the Freudian repressed: the repressed other that the subject has excluded in order to reify his own subjectivity comes back not to haunt the subject, but to rescue him and return him to wholeness.

Jesus then proceeds to further trap the lawyer with the flaws in his own thinking, asking him who acted like a neighbor in the story. Unable to bring himself to say the dirty word “Samaritan,” the lawyer responds, “the one who showed mercy.” It’s a great moment: Jesus here actually banks on the lawyer’s own exclusionary thinking precisely in order to force him out of it, rhetorically cornering him to the point that he has to admit that neighborliness has nothing to do with exclusive categorization, but rather with acts of mercy that have no regard for category. The parable points to the paradox the lawyer’s question is meant to mask: to ask to whom the commandment to love the neighbor applies is to break the commandment before the attempt is made to follow it. Jesus thus exposes the lawyer’s question as the rhetorical dodge that it is; the question shows not that he is interested in learning how to follow what he admits is the highest commandment under his own law, but that he has already decided not to.

Thus we learn the danger of attempting to out-theorize the Supreme Being.