:: Article

cura te ipsum

By Alex Rosenberg.

Educators concerned about the decline of interest in the humanities often justify their importance in the way the presidents of Stanford and the University of Michigan did recently:

“These disciplines play an important role in educating students for future leadership and deal most directly with the human condition. The humanities— history, literature, languages, art, philosophy, focus on the lasting challenges relevant to all of us: creating lives of purpose and meaning, appreciating diversity and complexity, communicating effectively with others and overcoming adversity. Ultimately, our ability to work meaningfully with others will determine the success of our enterprises, and that ability is honed through the humanities and social sciences. That is why the humanities and social sciences are an essential part of undergraduate education.”

The crisis faced by the humanities is not a lack of warm bodies in freshman classes. Those classes are crowded, thanks to distribution requirements and budget cuts. The problem is the lack of interest in pursuing further study of these disciplines in advanced classes. One reason for this may simply be that students don’t really believe that the humanities hone the relevant abilities, educate them for leadership or even deal with the human condition in a way that matters to them.

Grounds for this suspicion are several and obvious. For the problems of the humanities are self-inflicted wounds well recognized by their colleagues in other faculties.
First, over the last two generations the humanities (except for philosophy) have lost faith with their callings as the bearers of a continuous cultural inheritance–a canon, for want of a better word. They have viewed the need to widen their curricula as a zero sum game, in which the entrance of more women, underrepresented minorities, nonwestern peoples has required the exclusion of more dead white dudes. Maybe it has. But the result has been an advanced curriculum their students find foreign and their colleagues educated before this sea change cannot appreciate. The “boutique” courses they teach in their majors, the heavy doses of “theory” they lay on in graduate classes, make it difficult to connect with their students in ways that would provide the purpose, meaning, appreciation of complexity, or recognition of adversity that the presidents of Michigan and Stanford hope for.

Second, too many humanists, especially those with tenure and graduate programs to tend to, have also ceased to teach fundamental skills to the undergraduates they share with colleagues in the sciences. Teaching writing was long ago hived off from the permanent fulltime tenured faculty in English departments, literature departments, journalism and communication schools, to writing programs, to composition classes taught by teaching assistants, adjunct instructors, “writing fellows.” Teaching effective communication to freshman is just not in the full professors’ job description anymore.

Similarly, the faculty in the foreign languages have rationally decided that their “research” and the preparation of the next generation of university scholars is far more important than teaching introductory Spanish, or French or German. Indeed, many hold themselves unqualified to do it. Teaching writing in English or teaching the first years of a foreign language, is now deemed a technical skill requiring special training that tenured professors don’t have time to acquire and use, given their need to produce scholarship.

We can’t really blame humanities faculty for their priorities. The incentive structure of the tenure system is as much to blame for the disconnect between what most students need and what tenured humanities faculty are rewarded for doing.

Third, the abdication of the humanist’s traditional role has been combined with an attempt to compete on the terrain of the sciences, an attempt that sometimes make the humanist a laughing stock among scientists and their students. Too often the humanities’ defenders seek to show that writers, artists, and other cultural figures made important contributions to science, or even preempted or prefigured empirical discoveries not made until centuries later. “Proust was a Neuroscientist” may sound like a clever book title to admirers of that great author. But if Proust ever wrote anything that sounded like what some cognitive scientist said decades later it was entirely by accident. It may be entertaining to note of the Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne, that the former personifies Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahnman’s “slow thinking” and the latter his “fast thinking.” But you can actually find English professors giving priority of discovery of these two modes of cognition to Jane Austen. All too often what humanists really show when they do this is how little they understand the science.

Defenders of the humanities draw lines in the sand, daring science to cross them. Then, when physics, biology or psychology begins to illuminate domains previously left to theology, or philosophy, or novelists like Virginia Woolf, humanists lose more credibility among students who know some science. Why should they take advanced classes from people who sound like scolds or in some cases even charlatans?

Philosophy, at least analytical philosophy–has been something of an exception to the enrollment crisis of the humanities. Its other differences from the rest of the humanities provide evidence that their problems stem from these three self-inflicted wounds. Philosophy has never surrendered its canon: we are still teaching Plato, Hume, Kant, along with Amartya Sen, Judy Thompson and Ruth Marcus. Senior faculty still value and often teach “baby” logic, the foundation of all reasoning in the humanities as well as science. Philosophers who take an interest in science know enough of it to convince scientists that the conceptual problems they locate in biology or physics are real. But philosophy doesn’t pretend it can supersede science as a mode of knowledge. Maybe these are the reasons why many science students still take our advanced classes.

Is there a solution to the humanities’ problem? Yes, but first we need to recognize that it is not merely a public relations problem. Nor is it a short-term problem arising from the recession and the pressure it put on acquiring marketable skills. What is required is a recognition that at their best the humanities are in the business of moving us emotionally, not informing us scientifically. The humanities must surrender the pretension of competing with science on its own explanatory turf. It must regain its mission of helping readers, lookers and listeners respond to artistic achievements, along with helping creative artists achieve the results that make people respond to them. That doesn’t mean abandoning “criticism” for English composition. After all, great literary scholarship can guide and sometimes even create the kind of human response produced by the art it seeks to valorize. In Less than One, Joseph Brodsky offered an analysis of W.H. Auden’s poem, “September 1, 1939.” Those 50 pages were an act of artistic creation, informing and moving the reader as much as the poem they come to grips with. Brodsky’s Nobel Prize in literature was deserved as much for his criticism as his poetry.

“Cura te ipsum.” It’s latin for “take care of your own self.” To regain their health the humanities need to get back to basics. That includes getting faculty back to being valued, rewarded, lionized, tenured for what they do in the freshman classroom instead of in the pages of the PMLA.


Alex Rosenberg is the R. Taylor Cole Professor of Philosophy and chair of the philosophy department at Duke University. He is the author of Economics — Mathematical Politics or Science of Diminishing Returns, most recently, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, January 2nd, 2014.