The crisis in the humanities that we see today does not concern numbers so much as belief. A society dedicated to empiricism and utilitarianism is a society that does not recognize the superiority of philosophic knowledge, or the importance of the aesthetic…
It is now a year-and-a-half since I had the opportunity to visit the Russell Kirk Center in Mecosta, Michigan to attend a seminar at which I have the pleasure to meet the late scholar’s widow, as well as The Imaginative Conservative‘s Senior Contributor Bruce Frohnen, and many other conservatives from throughout the United States and Latin America. Those who have had similar good fortune will know that one would be hard-pressed to find a more cultured atmosphere, better company, or more intellectually stimulating conversation. Among the topics we discussed was the now much-analyzed decline in the humanities, one of the speakers presenting a lecture on the reduction in numbers of university students pursuing humanities degrees and professors teaching in humanities departments, together with the increase in the numbers of students and professors working in departments dedicated to science, math, technology, and engineering. That lecture put me on to a line of thought to which I have periodically returned since that time, and which I have finally decided to commit to paper.
That the current state of the humanities is far from healthy is a contention that few who frequent this forum of ideas would deny. But such a basic fact is one thing and its nature is another. If we are to understand the current state of the humanities we must be honest about where problems really do lie and where they do not. The numbers alone do not tell even half the story. The most serious factors in this crisis defy numerical analysis. But despite the existence of such a crisis, there remain ways in which the humanities are in a better state than an analysis of statistical shifts occurring over the past half-century would seem to indicate. I would even go so far as to claim that a preoccupation with the statistics betrays a surrender to one of the most serious errors that defenders of humane learning must oppose: the exaltation of the quantifiable and empirical over the philosophic and the aesthetic.
No realistic analysis of the statistics can be made without taking into account the changes in the nature of universities that have taken place over the past century-and-a-half. Universities, when they were first founded in the Middle Ages, educated a small fraction of the population and were centers for humane study. Schools roughly analogous to contemporary high schools provided a more solid grounding in the classics than than do most contemporary graduate degrees in the humanities. But even these schools educated a distinct minority. Most preparation for a profession or trade took place in other contexts, commonly through an apprenticeship. The paradigm of the apprenticeship, however, was not limited to trades. Sons of successful businessmen who intended to follow in their fathers’ footsteps would serve as apprentices in counting houses. Those going into medicine would study directly under practicing doctors. Those looking to become officers in the army or navy would begin as “gentleman volunteers” or as midshipmen. In the early United States, law was studied informally under a practicing lawyer or judge, while in England the same studies took place within the professional associations known as the Inns of Court, rather than at Oxford or Cambridge.
Because universities were known to provide a high-level education, at least until sometime in the twentieth century, considerable prestige was conferred upon those possessing a university degree. This led to increases in the number obtaining such degrees and to the positive mania for them which developed in the twentieth century. The resultant nosedive in educational standards is too well known for the point to be belabored. What is often overlooked is the fact that universities ceased to be what they once were—a training in the classics and in theology for the relative few. They became instead conglomerates, providing traditional courses of university studies alongside various other forms of professional training and preparation for trades that historically had taken place in other contexts.
One reason why a person today with, say, a bachelor’s degree in business with have an easier time finding work than one with a bachelor’s degree in the humanities is that, by contemporary standards, both confer equal prestige, while the business degree shows knowledge of the profession for which someone is being hired. This is not the same situation as, say, that in the eighteenth century; then, the rare person who attained a bachelor’s degree in the humanities might find himself in competition with someone who spent two years as an apprentice in a counting house. (A contemporary approximation of such a situation would be one in which someone with a doctorate in the humanities is competing with someone who has a bachelor’s in business.)
During the first period of influx of a large proportion of the population into the universities, many students followed something along the lines of a traditional university course of studies. But the more that attendance at universities became the norm, the more that university degrees lost their unique status. And, increasingly, students sought to pursue a course of employment preparation rather than a traditional course of university studies. The decline within university humanities departments is explained to a significant degree by this development.
It is also necessary to look beyond the confines of the academic world. The ability to earn one’s living, say, as a writer, a critic, or an editor is greater today than it has ever been. For most of history, the man who earned his living by his pen was an anomaly, and before the eighteenth century he was usually dependent upon royal or aristocratic patronage. Government funding for writers, musicians, and artists is a contemporary form of the older tradition of patronage. In the eighteenth century it was considered remarkable that Alexander Pope earned a comfortable living from popular sales of his writing. Later in the same century no less a literary giant than Samuel Johnson was barely able to survive by his pen, and still needed a royal pension during his final years. Not until the nineteenth century did it become common for writers to be able to live off sales rather than off patronage; only towards the later part of that century, or early in the twentieth, had living off the sale of one’s writing been sufficiently customary to seen as a norm.
The crisis in the humanities that we see today does not concern numbers so much as belief. A society dedicated to empiricism and utilitarianism is a society that does not recognize the superiority of philosophic knowledge (let alone religious knowledge) or the importance of the aesthetic. Such errors are undoubtedly a factor in the declining numbers within the academic humanities. The subjection of studies within the humanities to empiricism and utilitarianism, as well as to Frankfurt critical theory, goes far to explain why study of the humanities has today often been distorted almost beyond recognition.
As long ago as the seventeenth century, the English-speaking world saw academies associated with Puritanism began to place an increased emphasis on “practical” disciplines, while Roman Catholics and High Anglicans more fully maintained the classical, humane tradition. Today, the dividing line between those who promote humane learning in the university and those who favor a utilitarian program is not a religious one, or even a political one. Within conservatism itself we have the camp of the business-oriented Philistine, concerned with the “bottom line” and indifferent to high culture; indeed, the American Right today is dominated by the philosophy of classical liberalism—economically oriented and historically grounded in Puritanism and in the Whig tradition. A revival of the humanities would thus require, among conservatives, a return to the culture and the erudition found among the Southern Agrarians, and such figures as Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.