Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Liberal Arts and the Humanities

There have been a couple of random humanities articles in the past couple of days, as well as a special issue of The New Criterion devoted to the state of the liberals arts education.

This article on How to Read the Bible appeared in First Things. Here are a couple of quotes.

Allegory fell on hard times in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Although the charm of beloved works of English literature such as Spenser’s Faerie Queene and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress lies in the imaginative use of allegory, biblical scholars banished the term from their vocabulary. Harper’s Bible Dictionary, for example, published in the 1980s by leading scholars of the Society of Biblical Literature, does not even have an entry under the word.

The neglect of allegory in modern times is not surprising. With the emergence of historical criticism as the dominant form of biblical interpretation, allegory was discredited as a feckless style of medieval exegesis that twisted the words and phrases of Scripture into arbitrary symbols of hidden truths. As one biblical scholar put it: “Where allegory and its variations come into play, the meaning of the text is murdered.”

In truth, the abandonment of allegory was a revolt against the Church’s tradition, including the tradition that is found in the New Testament itself. The practice of allegorizing the Old Testament—giving certain passages a meaning other than the plain sense—was not an invention of the Church Fathers or the Middle Ages; it was the work of the authors of the books of the New Testament. And in their exegesis of the Old Testament, patristic commentators consciously imitated what they had learned from the New Testament.

I think we can see this trend also in the literalist trend among evangelicals. What better to kill a great work of art than to read it literally.

Here is a bit more on allegory.
The customary term for this kind of exegesis is allegory, a word first introduced into Christian speech by St. Paul in the Epistle to the Galatians: “It is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, the son of the free woman through promise. Now this is an allegory; these women are two covenants.” The root meaning of allegory is that there is another sense, another meaning, besides the plain sense. Sarah and Hagar are not simply names of the wives of Abraham; they also signify two covenants, one associated with Sinai and the other with the Jerusalem above. The rock in the desert that Moses struck and from which water flowed is not simply a rock; it is also Christ.

Allegory is not distinctive to Christian exegesis of the Old Testament. It was used by Greek literary scholars in the ancient world to interpret the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, and it was employed by Jewish thinkers—for example, Philo of Alexandria—to interpret the Pentateuch.

Christian allegory has similarities to this kind of allegory, but what sets it apart is that it is centered on Christ. Allegory in Christian usage means interpreting the Old Testament as a book about Christ. St. Ambrose wrote: “The Lord Jesus came and what was old was made new.” Everything in the Scriptures is to be related to him. As a medieval commentator put it, “All of divine scripture is one book, and that one book is Christ, because all of divine scripture speaks of Christ, and all of divine scripture is fulfilled in Christ.”

Allegory (or, if one prefers, “spiritual exegesis”) is interpretation of the Old Testament in light of the new reality of Christ. In the words of Henri de Lubac, the distinguished theologian and historian of early Christian exegesis: “The conversion of the Old Testament to the New or of the letter of scripture to its spirit can only be explained and justified, in its radicality, by the all-powerful and unprecedented intervention of Him who is himself at once the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last. . . . Therefore Jesus Christ brings about the unity of Scripture, because he is the end-point and fullness of Scripture. Everything in it is related to him. In the end he is its sole object. Consequently, he is, so to speak, its whole exegesis.”

* * * * *

Meanwhile, The Washington Post looked at The Art of Folly at Yale, another take on the controversy surrounding the Aliza Shvarts affair. But the author also seeks to place the situation in a larger context.

This is a long quote, but it's instructive of the whole context of art in America, and in the university in particular.

Whether Shvarts is telling the truth or, as Yale claims, was simply engaged in bizarre "performance art," the real issue is this: Where did she get such a gruesome, pornographic idea? And who taught her to confuse it with art?

Whether a monstrosity or a dishonest provocation, Shvarts's "project" was the reductio ad absurdum -- or ad nauseam -- of ideology and pedagogy that have been standard fare in the humanities at Yale and on many other campuses for years. Her supervisors -- Yale's fall guys -- probably didn't tell her no for the same reason that, in 2003, a New York University professor initially approved a student's proposal to record two students having sex in front of the class. (The NYU administration later nixed it.)

The politicized obsession with race, gender and sexuality; the denigration of canonical works by "dead white males"; the callow mocking of convention; the notion that truth itself is merely a construct of power and self-interest -- all characterize the study of art and literature in America's colleges and universities. All were reflected in Shvarts's rationale for her "installation."

Among her "conceptual goals," she wrote in the Yale Daily News, was "to assert that often, normative understandings of biological function are a mythology imposed on form. It is this mythology that creates the sexist, racist, ableist, nationalist and homophobic perspective, distinguishing what body parts are 'meant' to do from their physical capability." Shvarts wanted to show that "it is a myth that ovaries and a uterus are 'meant' to birth a child."

Yale, of all colleges, never should have been blind-sided by such a stunt. One of the most astute critics of the humanities is on its faculty. Last year, Anthony T. Kronman, the former dean of Yale's law school, published "Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life." This superb book traces the historical rise and fall of the humanities, which, Kronman writes, "are not merely in a crisis. They are in danger of becoming a laughingstock, both within the academy and outside it."

In the past, Kronman argues, colleges and universities understood that undergraduates were hungry for answers to the Big Question: What is the meaning of life? And schools believed that not only religion but also higher education could help students find them. Humanities departments focused on great works of Western civilization, from Homer to Shakespeare. In short, Kronman writes, they gave their students a four-year seat in the unending "great conversation" of their civilization.

But between political correctness and the "publish or perish" ethic of the modern research university, the humanities have lost the desire and the capability to guide students' spiritual quests. Instead, humanities professors stake their authority on an unrelenting critique not just of contemporary society but of meaning itself.

I don't think the humanities are doomed, but they have surely fallen on hard times -- and seemingly have lost their purpose and direction. There's nothing wrong with questioning meaning, or the meaning of meaning, but there are lines between what is art and what is simply misguided. But I'm glad I'm not the one to make those decisions.

* * * * *

Finally, The New Criterion has a special issue on the liberal arts.

Introduction: What was a liberal education?

by Roger Kimball

An introduction to our special issue on education.


On the sadness of higher education

by Alan Charles Kors

On comparing the university life then with now


The world we have lost: a parable on the academy

by Robert L. Paquette

On the Alexander Hamilton Center affair at Hamilton College.


The new learning that failed

by Victor Davis Hanson

On the value of classical learning.


Liberalism vs. humanism

by James Piereson

On the battle between learning for the sake of learning and learning for utility.


The age of educational romanticism

by Charles Murray

Here is a section from Liberalism vs. humanism, by James Piereson.

Humanism is the name given to the various intellectual movements that have developed since the Renaissance which emphasize the secular achievements of man in the fields of art, literature, philosophy, and politics, using as starting points and models for study the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome. Though humanism originally developed out of Medieval Christianity, its main purpose then and afterwards was to demonstrate the dignity and creative power of man. The major intellectual movements that shaped the modern world, including most especially the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, arose out of humanist ideals. Reason, science, free inquiry, the power of the human intellect—these have been the watchwords of humanist movements through the centuries. Humanists have always pointed to the highest human achievements in order to promote understanding of what is great and noble in human affairs and to encourage efforts at emulation. Humanism—or the humanities —has long found a home in the great universities of Europe and North America. Indeed, those institutions have developed over several centuries as instruments for spreading the ideals of humanistic study. Until quite recently, the ideals of the university have been indistinguishable from those of humanism.

Liberal conceptions have now replaced traditional humanistic ideals in defining both the form and substance of the American university. Liberal ideals like freedom of choice, equality among all groups and fields of study, tolerance of disparate viewpoints and lifestyles, diversity, and compassion have pushed aside the older humanistic ideals of the structured curriculum, classical studies, mastery of ancient languages, the great books of western civilization, the aristocracy of the intellect, and the republic of letters. Important historical figures or impressive works of art and literature which were once held up by humanists as models for emulation and aspiration are now viewed in terms of a “hermeneutics of suspicion” which unmasks the hidden political interests they claimed to represent. Since these interests are always framed in terms of money or power or some similarly dishonorable calculation, such an approach has the pedagogical effect of reducing every subject of study to a common moral level. The point of these exercises is to establish equality as the conceptual prism through which all subjects must be viewed. This is a vision of equality—equality with a vengeance—that grows out of contemporary liberalism but which cannot be reconciled with the humanities as traditionally studied or with the ideals of classical humanism.

It is hard to know if the eclipse of humanism on the campus is but a temporary setback for a venerable philosophy or if it marks the end of an intellectual tradition that for centuries provided the rationale and purpose for advanced academic study.

The rise of liberalism as a counter-ideal has brought the university more into line with the norms of democracy and equality that are widely influential within American society at large—a development which (surprisingly enough) may have augmented its legitimacy in the eyes of parents, public officials, and philanthropists who are called upon to provide it with resources and students. From this point of view, humanism appears as an obstacle to the fulfillment of liberal goals both on the campus and in the wider polity since those who defend the traditional humanities are immediately portrayed as enemies of equality and democracy. For this reason, the academic revolutions of the past half-century may prove difficult to reverse or to modify.

At the same time, humanism has long been thought to be a necessary educational adjunct to liberal political doctrine. Beginning in the late 1600s, liberalism advanced as a political theory because it defined “liberty” as the individual’s right to choose his own way of life, primarily in the area of religion but also as time passed in an expanding field of activities. Liberalism set the individual free but did not provide instruction as to how he should live or how he should order his private conscience. As a revolutionary doctrine and one that sought to limit the reach of government, early liberal thinkers were forced to look to classical traditions for instruction in important civic matters such as war, statecraft, and citizenship. For most people, religion filled the void opened up by liberalism in the area of private life and morals. Humanism did so as well for those who pursued advanced academic studies or who may have harbored political or literary ambitions. Liberalism, it was understood, was not the same as the liberal arts. However powerful it may have been as a political doctrine, liberalism (like science) was thought to be insufficient as a general guide to life and thus in need of support from other sources and traditions of thought.

This awareness of the limits of liberalism is one source of the calls we hear today for a revival of the humanities in higher education. It also accounts for the wide readership gained by books critical of the academy like Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals, and Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. Such works, while routinely dismissed by college presidents and deans as reactionary tracts out of step with the times, point to a permanent problem in liberal thought that cannot be overcome by further reforms in the direction of more democracy, equality, and freedom on the campus. Such books, and the responses to them, have raised the main question—whether humanism is in fact an obstacle to the fulfillment of liberal ideals or a complementary philosophy that can supply them with a measure of content and purpose.

No comments: