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Defending the classical humanities

It has been out for some time now, but I have just read Robert Proctor’s Defining the Humanities: How Rediscovering a Tradition Can Improve Our Schools, With a Curriculum for Today’s Students (Bloomington:  Indiana UP, 2nd ed., 1998), and found it to be exceptionally thought provoking.  First written just one year after Allan Bloom’s more deeply contentious and popularly influential The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), Proctor makes a much more reasonable case for the significance of a broadly humanistic education which I think holds up pretty well even against a number of criticisms of the humanities as traditionally understood and not directly engaged by his main claims.

Proctor’s argument relies on one important definitional move.  In contrast to those who generically conflate the humanities with the liberal arts, those who (following Matthew Arnold) see the humanities as consisting of any education that has students attending to the best ideas ever thought (or to some version of the Great Books tradition), and those who consider “the humanities” simply an umbrella term for all the academic disciplines that are neither the sciences (natural or social) nor the arts, Proctor insists on a more limited definition that returns us directly to the educational (one might even say social) reform movement led by Petrarch (that’s him above, Francesco Petrarca) in the 14th century Renaissance.  It was Petrarch who set into the historical imagination the idea that the centuries prior had been a sort of Dark Ages, and his inspirational example animated the resurgence of the studia humanitatis in 15th century Italy.  Petrarch was not alone of course in firing the humanist imaginary, nor in seeing his age as a sort of Renaissance – Brunelleschi (1377-1446) and Donatello (1386-1466) and Michelangelo (1475-1564) and especially Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444) played vital roles along with many others – but for Proctor it is Petrarch whose research and life experience proved most inspirational to those seeking an alternative to the dry scholasticism then dominant.

In framing the story in this way, the humanities came alive for me as an intellectual emancipation, a revolution or paradigm shift (to use the more contemporary parlance), and this I think is a useful way to understand their founding impulses today when the humanities are often defended (and distorted) by politically conservative forces seeking to nostalgically obliterate the current interest in topics like marginalization and resistance.  And yet Petrarch’s leapfrogging back to the old classics – Cicero and Augustine and Homer and Vergil and Plato and Aristotle – was itself a renunciation of his contemporaries’ interest in technique and method, and, to be blunt, signified its own obliteration of the prior thousand years of scholarly endeavor.

What animated this movement and made it so compelling for Renaissance students was the humanistic impulse to enact an educational philosophy centered more on virtue and wisdom and the well lived life than on the development of skills that are merely instrumental and acquisitive.  Proctor’s contention is that these same originary impulses are much needed in the context of a current educational scene too often characterized by the abandonment of content for learning competencies, the too frequent careerist obsessions of students and their parents and professors who enable it, and a culture dominated by paradoxically narcissistic and desperate-for-wider-meaning individuals too easily seduced by quacks and demagogues ignorant of history.  His defense of central attention on the Greek and Roman classics is not grounded in nostalgia, nor a naive view that perfection was reached in those cultures, but centers instead on the idea that the Greek and Roman worldviews, which were deeply communitarian and not egocentric (developments arriving much later with writers like Shakespeare and thinkers like Freud), is a much needed and historically unique alternative to our current obsession with finding one’s bliss and listening to one’s inner voice and wholly remaking oneself (a la Tony Robbins and the Mega Millions lottery and Extreme Makeover) and all the other intellectual prejudices that lead us to endlessly dabble, wandering from here to there in search for an authentic and unique identity.

Proctor’s case is, as I say, interesting and well made, but not perfect.  He does not even address those who rightly attack the classical (and also the Renaissance) intellectual tradition as the preserve of a monied elite hopelessly aggressive (one might say Imperial) in excluding the contributions of vast majorities of the world’s population, nor does he engage at any length or in serious detail the insights of, say, psychoanalysis and its insistence that the idea of the unitary and perfectible human agent (able to objectively observe the scene and by emulation achieve moral progress) requires considerable modification or even wholesale rejection, nor of those who see in the later Enlightenment’s compulsive interest, arguably germinated in the Renaissance, in discipline and mastery and understanding an impulse to obliterate what cannot be intellectually absorbed, an intellectual move that many today judge culpable for the final logics of the Shoah and for other crimes including ecological catastrophe.  Proctor’s argument does contain an implicit response, however, and one worth considering:  if we are to benefit from alternative ways of seeing the world able to correct our own ahistorical tendencies, approaches that emphasize the unity of humans with nature and take seriously the possibility of mystery, we may have no better alternatives to the Greek and Roman thinkers.  As he puts it (pg. 144-145):

We have no choice:  if we want to think about education seriously today, we must engage in a dialogue with our classical and Renaissance pasts.  That we do not explains the emptiness of our current discussions of the humanities.  We are living in the vacuum created by the disappearance of the Greeks and the Romans.  Since the hegemony of classical education was broken in the last century, our curriculum has slowly degenerated into a smorgasbord of courses with no focus, no unity, no integrating design.  The result is that whenever we talk about improving our schools, we sidestep the question of the actual content of what we teach and focus instead on the technology and techniques of teaching.  This obsession with technique leads nowhere.  Choosing the specific books and authors that students will read is vastly more important than deciding how they will read them, just as choosing the food we eat is more important to our health than deciding what utensils we will eat it with….  The very vacuum created in our curriculum by the disappearance of the Greeks and the Romans, in spite of the confusion and disorientation it has created, gives us the freedom to decide what aspects of our past we can use today.  Indeed, we are now in an ideal position to revise and reappropriate the tradition of the humanities.  A century ago it had become a dead weight, and people had to struggle to get out from under it.  Today it is weightless.

Proctor makes, I think, a nuanced case.  He is not saying that a university education must only consist of humanistic offerings, and he readily concedes the important value of the more practical disciplines (acknowledging, in fact, that the practical appeal of a humanistic education for Renaissance lawyers and ministers and bureaucrats helped advance its popularity) and of an education in science and art and society.  He is not defending unquestioning deference to the insights of the classics, and in fact repeatedly calls to mind that some of the sharpest critiques of institutionalized power came from thinkers like Marx and Nietzsche who benefitted from graduate educations in the classics but also found ammunition for their radicalism there.  He is not defending the caricature of humanistic scholarship euphemistically attacked today as secular humanism – although he acknowledges that the central texts of humanistic learning are not mainly derived from the Judeo-Christian tradition, he also sees them as offering an important supplement for students seeking a better understanding of ethics and virtue than they might (sadly) receive in some denominations that have abandoned the noble traditions of Christian intellectualism in favor of feel-good psychobabble and a Jesus-Wants-You-Rich Gospel.

And the symmetries he notices between the impulses that gave rise to a humanistic resurgence in the 15th century and our own time are, I think, jarring.

One example:  Petrarch did much of his writing under the horrific shadow of the Black Plague that was not only devastating his family and friends, but which for a time seemed to suggest the possible wholesale eradication of humans from the planet, since no cures were available and no one could know whether any could finally escape.  Petrarch’s world was turned upside down by grief and trauma and a sense of religious searching and sometimes despair that God had abandoned his creation, perhaps foreshadowing final judgment.  And the intellectualist impulses of scholastic theology, while brilliant and clever, seemed finally unable to offer solace or inspiration to generations frantically trying to make sense of these catastrophes of illness and random Fortune.  Listen to the sense of vertigo and terror lurking right below the surface in this passage (cited by Proctor at pg. 41):

Is it not true… that your clemency, God, exhausted little by little by human crimes, and weighed down by their continual increase, now finally overcome, withdraws, and you, excellent wayfarer, unable to bear any more, throw us behind, and angrily turn the eyes of your mercy away from us?  If this be so, then we are paying at the same time not only for our own crimes, but also for those of our fathers – we who are certainly more miserable, if not worse than they.  Or perhaps it is true what certain great minds suspect, that God does not care about mortal things.  But let this madness be absent from our minds: if you did not care they would not exist…  Certainly you care about us and our affairs, God, but it is for a hidden reason, unknown to us, why we are seen most worthy of all the ages to be punished so fiercely, by a justice which is not diminished just because it is hidden.  For the depth of your judgment is inscrutable and hidden to the human senses.  Thus we are either truly the worst of all, which I would like to deny more than I dare to, or, more truly tried and purged by these present evils, we are being saved for future blessing, or else there is something which we are unable to think at all.

Where, in the face of this inscrutable terror, is one to turn?  Petrarch found inspiration and comfort in the ancients even as he refused to abandon his faith, solace in their words and escape in the example of figures like Cicero and his brave face efforts to conceal his utter distress at the death of his beloved daughter Tullia.  Such resources seem at least a plausible historical reserve today too, in an age also dominated by terror and illness and apocalyptic warnings and trauma and hatred.

Beyond potential macroscopic relevance, Proctor also makes a decent case, though occasionally an overheated one, for the relevance of an educational philosophy more attuned to virtue than techne.  His indictments of contemporary scholarship are too harsh – he thinks today’s obsessiveness with Theory produces mainly worthless scholarship along the lines of the Scholastics’ debates over angels on needle heads and makes sometimes cruel judgments about the teaching done in our universities.  But if the accusations are strong, one might say in his defense that he has said nothing yet quite as blistering as Nietzsche when attacking the philologists of his day on the same bases, and it certainly seems accurate to say that colleges today, seduced by the idea that in a changing economy a student wastes her time actually learning something when who knows what job she’ll be doing at age fifty, seems poised to abandon educational substance for skill sets (like literacy and critical thinking) so abstracted as to barely ignite interest in learning at all.

Proctor:  “Today we say that a liberal arts education stimulates the mind and exercises the critical intelligence.  But Petrarch believed that education should do more” (102).  Thus was a movement born.


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