The Humanities are Dead! Long live the Liberal Arts!

by Bernard Brandt

Now that I have your attention, I would like to give a funeral oration for the late, great humanities, and for the great universities, which are dying even as we speak. Perhaps an oration and a eulogy for both of them would be appropriate, for both the humanities and the universities, as the latter are the tomb and funeral pyre within which the former have suffocated, perished, and been burned alive.

Truly, the humanities, and the great universities from which they sprung, five or so centuries ago, were wonders to behold. They had taken the philosophical, literary, historical, and scientific knowledge of their time, and had so compounded them, one with another, so that their masters and exponents were replete with the knowledge and erudition of their age. Borne out of the European Renaissance, their scientists, scholars, and poets were the marvel of their age. From Pico della Mirandola and Leonardo da Vinci all the way down to Isaac Newton and John Milton, they were equally conversant in the laboratories and literary salons of their day.

Over the many decades after them, however, changes slowly came to the humanities and the universities that housed them. Because of the advancement in knowledge of the scientists, and the multiplication of the scholiasts who made comment on the literature of the age, little by little the universities began the process of specialization into schools of literature, history, philosophy, and the sciences. This process was accelerated in the 18th and 19th centuries by the Germans, who encouraged their scholars and scientists to focus on narrow specializations, although, in all fairness to the Krauts, they still made their young scholars go through the gymnasien, which gave all of those students a general erudition, and a common fund of knowledge. And the English and the French of those days did much the same thing with their public schools and their êcoles, though they encouraged their university scholars toward a broader erudition than that of the Germans.

But it was in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries that the real mischief happened. It began with the realization that the sciences of engineering, chemistry, and physics could make weapons which would greatly increase the military and political power of the nation-states which held them. And, with the increased prestige of the physical sciences, American universities, and more to their point, their faculties, began to add the protective coloration of the name of ‘science’ to their new fields of political theory, sociology, psychology, economics, and anthropology, among many others (although, sad to tell, of their great number, only physical anthropology had the rigor of the physical sciences).

The consequences of all of the above were obvious to anyone who was actually paying attention. Alas, though, few were. C.P. Snow saw a part of this, when he wrote his The Two Cultures, where he saw a growing division between the scientific and engineering community, and that community which was still held together by a common literary, historical, and philosophical tradition. But in an age when the university money went to the scientists, and what was left over (other than that which went for sports, of course) was divided among the babel of ‘the subjects’, that tradition, and the erudition which went with them, soon disappeared.

In the mean time, among most American public and private schools, misguided and, quite frankly, bone headed theories of education led to the progressive abandonment of phonics, spelling, grammar, logic, rhetoric, or even the broad and deep reading that simply being left alone by the schools might have led to. This, combined with the progressively easier and easier entertainment of radio, television, computers, computer games, the internet, and social media, led to the progressive abandonment of any rigor in primary and secondary education.

The results of this whole scale abandonment of education in the humanities for the past fifty years have been that the ‘Two Cultures’ of the late C.P. Snow are now the Eloi and the Morlocks predicted in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. We now have the spectacle of liberal arts majors in the universities who could not name the seven Liberal Arts if a gun were put to their head, let alone give any indication that they had read much of anything. And, with the exception of some offspring of Jewish or Hindu or Asian families, who still have a tradition of education in the family, we have very few who know anything of mathematics or science, save perhaps to recount the latest episode of The Big Bang Theory.

In the meantime, the costs of college or university have so increased that it is impossible for a student to graduate, unless either his or her family is rich, or he or she is willing to sustain an enormous student debt, which can not be discharged in bankruptcy, or otherwise voided.

In short, I have seen the writing upon the wall, and it is the ledger sheet of a bankrupt institution.

More and more, what we shall see is that universities will abandon their ‘humanities’ departments, and more and more, they shall become trade schools and vocational schools which, at best, will teach the science and engineering which our corporate masters require for their employees, and at worst, will teach the law, economics, business, and finance which our corporate masters will require to maintain their exalted positions over the rest of us.