“[T]he humanists inspired by Petrarch and later Erasmus and Thomas More saw themselves as helping to rebuild Christendom by returning it to its ancient roots. They believed the study of classical languages and literatures, neglected in the Middle Ages (a period concept they invented), could improve character and create a love for wisdom and true piety,” writes Harvard University professor James Hankins in American Affairs. His essay argues that most modern attempts at defending the study of the humanities fall short.
[M]any modern academics still appreciate the real humanities, the humanities some teachers and some students still love. They know the soul of the humanities is prolonged contact with the great literature and philosophy of the past, the integration of the young into a cultural tradition, the discovery of the self in the mirror of great minds. They know that to defend the humanities by selling only the extrinsic benefits of humanistic study sells them short. But they no longer believe that the real goals of the humanities can be explained in so many words to those who today control the university’s purse strings. They think they have to use the camouflage of science, technology, and economic productivity to preserve public goodwill for their vocation…
De-moralizing the humanities—turning them into a set of skills, into a training in empathy, into politics by other means, or into handmaidens of the natural sciences—is a misguided strategy. Their moralizing purpose will always flow back in. The best way to disrupt the current pattern of decline in the humanities is to return them to their original, now discarded purpose of challenging cultural complacency by holding aloft what is best in our civilization.
He proposes defending the humanities on better terms: for their ability to develop the human character and sense of judgment.
At their origin in the Renaissance the humanities were not just a collection of old books studied by antiquarian enthusiasts. They emerged on the scene to challenge what they saw as political, cultural, and educational degeneracy. From the beginning—and perhaps never more than now—thejustification of humanities lies in the fact that they have always been poised to expose the soulless routine of our education and the moral complacency of our elites.
Finally, a case for the traditional humanities has to include a reorientation of teaching towards the formation of character and judgment. In the study of literature, history, philosophy, and the arts we need to abandon the refusal to make “value judgments” characteristic of demoralized modern culture. We need instead to teach a more courageous sort of discernment: to declare what is good and bad in our arts and our literature, to defend our convictions about the best way to live.
The whole essay is well worth reading and re-reading.