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The philosophical roots of the liberal arts can free students from a life of slavery spent spelunking in the cave of ignorance, trivialities, and the merely menial…

Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join Robert M. Woods as he examines the purpose and benefits of studying the humanities beyond simply fulfilling a core curriculum requirement. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher

For years, I would begin my Introduction to Humanities course by trying to clear up some muddled ideas about the term humanities. Of course, most of my students did not get the weightiness of the lecture. For them, Introduction to Humanities was merely a course in the core that was an academic requirement. In a most impassioned manner, the goal was to get the students to apprehend that the humanities was not really a discipline or set of disciplines, but a way of knowing. When fully embraced, the humanities could be a way of living and being. To provide a reference point of historical import, they would hear me implore, that “the humanities” more so than anything else they would experience at the university, would assist them in the plight to “know thyself,” and if embraced as a way of knowing and understanding, would assist in the great good of seeking and obtaining wisdom.

Mortimer Adler, in A Guidebook to Learning powerfully stated, “The word ‘humanities’ should not be used, as it is now generally used in our universities and colleges, and even our high schools, to stand for particular set of subject matters. Rather it should be used as José Ortega y Gasset used it in his Revolt of the Masses, published in 1930. This is the book which so eloquently denigrates the barbarism of specialization in the twentieth century, the cultural malady that only the humanities, properly understood can alleviate.” (87)

The modern academy, seems to have few, if any once-esteemed professors of humane letters serving as the amiable generalist guide toward the good, the true, and the beautiful. So, the privileged medieval college faculty, in contract to the impoverished modern college faculty, “might, therefore, have been more appropriately called the philosophical faculty or even, perhaps the faculty of the humanities or of humane letters. But once again we must guard against the current use of these terms by remembering that the Latin word ‘humanitas,’ translating the Greek word ‘paideia,’ signifies general as opposed to specialized learning. Thus understood, it includes all branches of learning, not just those that remain after we have named the various sciences, natural and social.” (20, Adler)

Of course, the university catalog, campus chatter, academic advisers and common misuse identifies the humanities as a cluster of disciplines. It has always been difficult when answering the question, “so what is a Ph.D. in Humanities” or the most troubling, “what does one do with a Humanities degree?” Of recent years, I simply answer, “be more human” when asked about the utilitarian role of a humanities degree and “the most misunderstood and least lived education” to the question of what a Ph.D. in Humanities actually is. Adler, assists again on these matters, but the question of being able to hear what is said seems more pressing today. “The word ‘humanities’ or the phrase ‘humanistic learning’ should stand for a generalist approach to all departments of knowledge as against a specialist competence in this or that particular branch of knowledge. It is accordingly incorrect and misleading to identify the humanities with the branches or departments of knowledge that remain after the various natural and social sciences have been enumerated.” (86)

Much has happened since Adler published these ideas twenty-seven years ago. My own students, having specialists in other departments who neither understand, nor care about such learning, and some who openly berate the impracticalities of the humanities, sway these students toward the mundane, imminently useful, and servile. Adler and other historians of education have observed, “The faculty of arts represented general as opposed to specialized learning, and learning for its own sake rather than for its useful application to some field of practice or action. This faculty consisted of teachers who bore the title Master of Arts. The students they succeeded in initiating into the world of learning or certified as Bachelors of Arts.” (20)

The modern university characterized by the narcissistic consumerist smorgasbord approach to life and our general contemporary ethos fully shaped by the triumph of the therapeutic, offers less and less in terms of the permanent things and more and more in terms of the momentarily relevant. It really is difficult to imagine that, “when universities came into being in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, in Padua and Paris, in Oxford and Cambridge, the main divisions of learning were manifest in the four faculties that constituted them. One of these was the faculty of arts. The other three were the professional faculties of medicine, law, and theology.” (19) Adler elaborates in a manner that shows another stark difference between the original university and its very different decedent. Even with the value attached to the older faculties of medicine, law, and theology, “the latter, in the order named, corresponded to practical concerns of less and greater importance: the care of the body, the conduct of life and society, and the salvation of the soul. In referring to these three areas of concern as practical, I am calling attention to the fact that men who became doctors of medicine, of law, and theology were not only men of learning, but also the practitioners of learned professions.” (19, Adler) This loss has no doubt contributed to the diminished loss of the presence of the fully educated and truly humane in medicine, law, and even theology.

In that opening lecture, I aspired to provide a touch of history of select terms and give the philosophical roots to the liberal arts that could free, even today’s students from a life of slavery spent spelunking in the cave of ignorance, trivialities, and the merely menial. Employing the best of ancient rhetoric the students would hear that the humanities, when truly encountered, “signifies the general learning that should be in the possession of every human being–learning that embraces or includes all the ways of knowing…” (86)

As the semester moved along, some came to understand that their poor humanities professor was a wayfarer without a sense of place, including even in the very academy that used to foster such persons. More than once I confessed, and sometimes apologized (due to the moment) for being a generalist. In modern parlance, being a “jack of all trades, and ace of none” is an academic professional hazard. For these young people who had as their “reason for being” to become an expert or specialist in some trade that would get them a paycheck, the gap grew greater with every passing lecture. Even when informed of the value of the humanities and that, “in the meaning of the word “humanities” or “humanistic”…that preserves its original significance as it comes down to us from antiquity and the Middle Ages, any subject that is approached in the manner of the generalist belongs to the humanities or is humanistically approached. The subject that is studied in the manner of the specialist does not belong there,” (87) they seemed unimpressed.

Adler, toward the end of his guidebook, observes, “At the beginning of the century William James anticipated Ortega’s insight. He pointed out that any subject can be seen in a humanistic light by being approached historically or philosophically.” (87) Neil Postman says nearly the exact same thing in his book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology and offers a prescription to remedy some of the ills facing modern education by suggesting that all disciplines should be approached historically and philosophically. It is most certainly true that this approach of history and philosophy of all disciplines would go toward correcting many of the perversions and distortions found whether it be in the field of astronomy, biology, through physics and zoology.

This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in October 2013. Republished with gracious permission from Musings of a Christian Humanist. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now

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1 reply to this post
  1. I’m sure some people are turned off by The humanities on the basis that they are “Impractical” and “Don’t lead to a job”. However, another, better reason is the perception these fields are infested with left wing professors. In that sense, who wants to study history from some Marxist who uses Howard Zinn’s book as a textbook? Or maybe study English from a feminist who can’t discuss Shakespeare without going on and on about “The Patriarchy”?

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