The humanities in universities have become corrupted by the corrosive pseudo-intellectualism of radical postmodernists and political ideologues. Fake subjects, such as women’s studies and intersectionality, have proliferated on campuses across the world over the past decade. The quality of scholarship has declined precipitously and the overwhelming majority of humanities articles published are never cited. Tenure, far from protecting intellectual diversity, has become a vehicle for promoting intellectual monocultures of authoritarian leftists. In over five decades, postmodern intellectuals have managed to produce less real value for any society than I was able to produce during my first job as a cart attendant for Target. Postmodernism is killing the universities. The passion of the postmodernists for iconoclasm under the guise of skepticism and anti-establishment tendencies has severely eroded credulity in the humanities.
What should a humanities education look like? The humanists, beginning with Francesco Petrarch in the Trecento, grounded their approach to the humanities in knowledge of the Greco-Roman world. Indeed, knowledge of the Great Classics (beginning with Homer and Hesiod) is essential for any student of the humanities. The Studia Humanitatis (traditional term for a Classically-oriented humanities education during the Rinascimento) included poetry, rhetoric, history, grammar, and moral philosophy.
“These studies sustain youth and entertain old age, they enhance prosperity, and offer a refuge and solace in adversity; they delight us when we are at home without hindering us in the wider world, and are with us at night, when we travel and when we visit the countryside”
-Cicero, Pro Archia
Aristotle employed the term ‘telos’ to define the end or goal of something. He was concerned with the ultimate aims of natural processes in addition to the aim of what we would now recognize as various fields of study. In this article, I am arguing that the telos of the humanities is to promote individual excellence through study of the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and exposure to the great texts of history so as to promote a greater understanding of the human condition. The Studia Humanitatis, or humanities, are rooted in Classical Pagan Antiquity and shaped by the greatest minds in recorded history.
“The intellect is prompted by nature to comprehend the whole breadth of being. … Under the concept of truth it knows all, and under the concept of the good it desires all.”
-Marsilio Ficino, Five Questions Concerning the Mind
COMPONENTS OF A HUMANITIES EDUCATION
1. The Trivium — Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric
“The utilitarian or servile arts enable one to be a servant — of another person, of the state, of a corporation, or of a business — and to earn a living. The liberal arts, in contrast, teach one how to live; they train the faculties and bring them to perfection; they enable a person to rise above his material environment to live an intellectual, a rational, and therefore a free life in gaining truth.”
-Miriam Joseph, The Trivium
Mastery of the trivium is essential to a liberal arts education. Grammar, logic, and rhetoric comprise the foundation of the humanities.
2. The Great Books
Great books are the treasures of civilizations. One should approach them with both respect and curiosity. Respect because of the experience of the author displayed in the work. Curiosity is the lens of analysis which brings the thrill of often long-dead authors back from the grave. Such curiosity is what drove the humanist Poggio Bracciolini to various libraries throughout Europe looking for the wisdom of the ancients (eventually rediscovering De rerum natura by Lucretius).
3. Emphasize the interconnectedness of the Humanities
The Humanities are not STEM fields. When it comes to science and technology, the most recent material tends to be the most relevant. Technological innovation means that what is new today will be obsolete within a few years if not sooner. Additionally, the creation of distinct fields of study has proved very beneficial to the hard sciences. These two aspects of the STEM fields do not hold for the humanities. Certain old books hold an enormous amount of value. This is not because they are old. Nor are the humanities focused only on the old. Rather, old books have been held up by generations of the greatest critics. Moreover, the speak to the human condition at a deep level. Human nature does not change. Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, and Goethe will never be obsolete.
The creation of distinct disciplines within the humanities at the undergraduate level has proved more negative than positive. The desire to make the humanities more like the hard sciences in the universities has had a deleterious effect on the quality of a humanities education. I ague that, at the undergraduate level, students in the humanities should study the liberal arts (in addition to the core curriculum) and not have to have a separate major or minor. If one wishes to specialize in English, history, philosophy, or some other discipline, one should go to graduate school after having been educated in the trivium and great books.
4. Primary Source Material
During the course of my graduate studies, nearly all of the historical monographs I read were published in the past few years. What historiography was taught in the classroom generally began in the mid-twentieth century with occasional references of ponderous ideas which existed beforehand. Pre-1900 historians were entirely absent. The problem with all of this is that one can only get a limited view of history: an understanding of how people of the past decade perceived people living in previous centuries. Additionally, appealing to the fact that history was not a formal academic discipline until recently is a logical fallacy (appeal to authority). One cannot simply brush off the views of all theorists living before the arbitrary creation of an academic field within an institutional framework. Historians should be familiar with the works of major historical theorists of the past (Herodotus, Thucydides, Suetonius, Bruni, Machiavelli, Guicciardini, and Gibbon just to name a few). An emphasis on primary sources will increase the quality of a humanities education in addition to promoting a more stable, organic approach. The proliferation of subfields (much like metastasizing tumors) will ground to a halt when it becomes obvious to all that many fields were merely poofed into existence in recent decades due to political fads.
I publish a new article every Friday.