There seems to be very little cultural space for humanistic studies. It is difficult to perceive how literature, philosophy, or theology could contribute to technological capitalism…
I would like you to imagine the following situation: Sometime after graduation a college student is hired as an intern at his university’s newly founded Center for Leadership Studies (CLS, it would no doubt be called). Within the first year of the internship, the CLS wins a major grant to host an international symposium, and the new graduate is asked to undertake the research needed to create the invitation list for the symposium. The goal is to invite leaders from all across the world, both from developed and developing countries, to identify and discuss the world’s most important problems, as well as develop innovative solutions. When our undergraduate sits down at the first planning meeting, what kinds of questions do you think will be brought up as particularly in need of solving: poverty, hunger, questions about infrastructure, women’s rights, disease, elementary education, and perhaps questions about technology, environmental issues, and extending the internet to the whole world, right? And what about the guest list? What kinds of people will be suggested as good candidates for the CLS’s Global Leadership Conference: influential politicians from the developing world, biologists, doctors experienced in fieldwork, medical researchers, experts on technology, computer scientists who deal with big data, engineers, and some creative business leaders, right?
I imagine that during this thought experiment you probably did not think about inviting to the global symposium a poet, a musician, an art historian, a philosopher, or a professor of literature. If you did, then please remember me when you come to power. My point is that the way we formulate to ourselves what kinds of questions are worth asking, what kinds of answers we should be pursuing, and what kinds of people might be able to develop solutions to those problems is for the most part confined within the fields of global business, politics, applied science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. This is not a new view of the world. Indeed, as Pierre Hadot has shown in The Veil of Isis, this approach toward seeing the world as a series of technical problems and man’s responsibility to uncover the secrets of nature in order to answer them dates back to antiquity. In fact, Hadot calls it the “Promethean Attitude,” based on the mythological tale of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and snuck it down to earth to give it to men. Here’s how Hadot puts it: “If man feels nature to be an enemy, hostile and jealous, which resists him by hiding its secrets, there will then be opposition between nature and human art, based on human reason and will. Man will seek, through technology, to affirm his power, domination, and rights over nature” (92). Commenting on the ancient practice of the Promethean Attitude, Hadot continues: “Technology allows us to regain the upper hand over nature… [Its goal] is to serve mankind’s practical interests, and therefore to relieve human sufferings, but also, it must be admitted, to satisfy the passions, particularly those of kings and the wealthy” (102). As Hadot mentions, Nature is viewed as holding back the secrets which, if we knew them, we could exploit and use to improve our condition, but we have to get them out of her: “If one situates oneself in a relation of hostile opposition, the model of unveiling will be, one might say, judicial. When a judge is in the presence of a defendant who is hiding a secret, he must try to make him confess it” (92-93). Again, this way of thinking about Nature and technology existed in antiquity, but it was this approach to nature that has taken hold within the modern world so much so that we don’t realize there are alternatives. For this reason, then, the Promethean Attitude seems obvious, and it is repeated in almost every facet of modern American culture, although without reference to its historical roots. Let me illustrate this point, before continuing on with a discussion of the role the liberal arts could play in such a society.
If you watch college football last fall, then you know that every Saturday each university is allowed its own advertising spot, and it’s interesting to note that almost every college claims to be doing the same thing as ever other college. I think these commercial are a great source of exploring the popular imagination of our country, because, clearly, no college means to challenge and shock its Saturday watchers. Here’s how one college, Clemson, describes its 2015 commercial:
WHAT’S NEXT? Clemson is dedicated to producing graduates who are —nimble, curious, creative, determined, and flexible. While no one knows what the future will hold, we know it will call for leaders who are ready and willing to step forward to meet the challenges. These leaders will be bold and they will be Clemson Tigers.
The actual commercial consists of a kind of Dr. Seuss-style poem, which runs like this:
What’s next? Next is more questions than answers. It zigs when others zag, and takes a chance to give everyone a chance, next does things which can’t be done, and makes a home which runs on sun. Next harnesses the air and sea and makes our water toxic free. Next heals the heart and makes a paint that’s smart and sees the past to change what comes next. Next runs, plans, wins, and refuses to stop. What’s next? It’s bold, it’s strong, and it’s orange.
While the text is being read, you can see images of scientists, engineers, solar panels, experiments, futuristic cars, and, of course, athletes. The whole thrust of the commercial is to promote a bold sense of moving forward, to create the desire to marshal resources which will help us be successful in the next generation. But what do we mean by successful? What are the standards for judging such success? The hidden assumption of the commercial is that the problems that ought to occupy us are technological at their base.
I probably watched more college football last year than is healthy for any human being to consume, and so you can trust me when I tell you that almost every college presents itself in similar terms of medicine, science, engineering, and technology, with a little bit of social justice thrown in here and there. It won’t come as a surprise to you that none of these colleges advertise the fact there you can study Shakespeare deeply, or come to know the writings of Plato, or study music, or study ancient languages like Hebrew, Sanskrit, and Greek. How could those things contribute anyway?
I have said that what Hadot calls the Promethean Attitude rules contemporary American culture, even if we are not fully aware of it. And in fact, it’s so deep in our culture that even Republicans and Democrats agree about it! The two parties are, unwittingly, committed to the same plan of technological, progressive capitalism. To put it starkly, both Scott Walker and Marco Rubio have more in common with Hillary Clinton than any of them do with the authors of the Federalist Papers. If the generation of the so-called founding fathers were mainly interested in republicanism because it puts limits on power and keeps decisions local, and if they were mainly motivated by a mistrust of the human tendency to consolidate power, all three of these modern politicians I have mentioned are committed to a view of political leadership as providing for unlimited growth. Our contemporary politicians are rather like our cities, which keep encircling themselves with rings of new looping highways; whereas an older view saw politics as essentially a process of limits, more like an older city which had a kind of centripetal force, moving around public buildings situated at the center of the community.
Let me illustrate this point. Scott Walker, who is commonly thought to be on the “far right,” as governor of Wisconsin, proposed not only a 300 million dollar budget cut to the Wisconsin state university system, but proposed rewriting the state constitution to reflect a new, more utilitarian approach to public education. Here is how one journalist sums it up:
As codified in state law, the mission of Wisconsin’s public colleges and universities has been to ‘extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses and to serve and stimulate society.’ Moreover, ‘inherent in this broad mission are methods of instruction, research, extended training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition.’ ‘Basic to every purpose of the system,’ the law states, ‘is the search for truth.’ The Wisconsin Idea has long stood as a succinct expression of what is meant by a liberal or classical education. In promoting a much more utilitarian view of the primary purpose of higher education, Walker proposed eliminating the words knowledge, truth, and public service from language in the state code and inserting language that emphasizes a commitment to tailoring curricula to meet workforce needs of corporate enterprises. This shift in emphasis would mean that public higher education would be regarded less as a public good and more as a commodity.
Fascinating: a so-called conservative politician, who wants to enact non-conservative measures—not protecting a constitution but rewriting it—in order to create a more progressive, technological capitalism. The case is similar for another self-proclaimed conservative, Marco Rubio. Over a year ago, when Rubio was in Iowa, he brought up his co-sponsored bill, commonly called, “the student right to know before you go act.” The Iowa Daily Register reported the following: “[t]he bill would direct the secretary of Education to require universities to publish a number of metrics. In particular, schools would be required to display postgraduate earning averages, average federal loan debt, and transfers rates, along with a handful of others.” Such information, Rubio joked, would give “Roman philosophy” majors something to consider when they pick what to study.” Rather, Rubio wants to push for a broader focus on skilled trades. “For the life of me,” Rubio said in Iowa, “I don’t understand why in the world we stopped training people to be welders, electricians, airplane mechanics, and body-shop technicians. If I’m president of the United States, vocational training will be a priority. We will stop telling kids that only way forward is a traditional four-year degree, because that isn’t true, especially in the 21st century.” In other words, Rubio wants to streamline the university system, to create better workers who are better able to contribute where there are economic desires.
Another politician has made almost identical arguments to Rubio on the purpose of education, arguing that we Americans “need to reorient our social expectations and the signals we send” about the value associated with different kinds of degrees. For this politician, it is time to “redefine higher education” so that more see the value of non-bachelor’s-degree programs. “Just because a job requires certain technical skills and not a bachelor’s degree” should not lead to a devaluing of those jobs or the relevant training. That politician is Hillary Clinton. Maybe both Rubio and Clinton employ the same speech writer. My point is not really a political one. It is a sociological one: Whether you are on the left or the right, or Plumber Joe watching football on Saturday, in our popular imagination we are agreed that education should serve the needs of an infinitely expanding economy. Education should make workers who fit into the paradigm of progressive, technological capitalism. The humanities are not on our radar. The Promethean Paradigm.
My final cultural core sample comes from Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Every age has its own epic, a work of art that tells a story in which that culture represents to itself its fears, its hopes, its anxieties. Within the story, we find a hero who has the necessary virtues to encounter those fears and to realize the hopes. For the Romans, this epic was the Aeneid; for Elizabethan England, it was The Faery Queen; for nineteenth century America is was Moby Dick. I would like to suggest that for our generation it is Interstellar.
As you know, the film’s protagonists are Murph and Cooper, daughter and father in near-future America, which is experiencing a severe ecological crisis: Crops are failing, and dust storms are frequent. And yet, a few scientist at NASA have been preparing a craft to leave this solar system, find a sustainable planet, and take fertilized human eggs to insure the future of the human race. Cooper, a pilot and mechanical engineer, ultimately manages, through a series of bold and self-sacrificing choices, to gather the scientific data needed to enable his daughter Murph to solve the remaining scientific problems and thus get the human race off earth and into space. This exciting movie has a number of artistic virtues, but my suggestion is that it also projects onto a story of an epic scale the same technological, progressive paradigm that keeps popping up. What we need are bold people, who go into mathematics and science and engineering, who start working on solutions that will enable us to survive and physically thrive. Cooper is probably an alumnus of Clemson.
To sum up what I have said so far, we have seen that there seems to be very little cultural space for humanistic studies. It is difficult to perceive how literature, philosophy, or theology could contribute to technological capitalism. And so, on first thought, we might want to answer our question—can the humanities possibly contribute to our modern culture?—in the negative.
This is the first essay in a two-part series. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay was originally delivered as an address to the Cardinal Society at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.