Why the Humanities?
Stephen L. Gardner
Two questions are urgently posed to the modern academy: what is the justification for congregating all the disciplines of modern knowledge under one roof as if they belonged integrally togetherif, that is, there is one? For perhaps it is merely a convenience. And secondly, what is the justificationif there is anyfor insisting upon the centrality of the humanities?
Yet without the humanities, and philosophy in particular, it would seem that there cannot be an academy in any real sense. Consider, then, four ways of conceiving and organizing an educational curriculum, or rather concepts of knowledge brought to focus by philosophersby no means the only ones, but clearly distinct and decisive in the history of pedagogy in the West since Plato. These are abbreviations, each meant to stand for a general idea, without too much emphasis on historical reference or detail.
(1) An Aristotelian-Thomistic view of disciplinary divisions and the order between them. Aristotle canonized the idea of knowledge as divided into disciplines, each with its appropriate matter and method, and ordered into a hierarchical (ascending) whole. However contemptuous it is of "the canon" (so called), the modern academy owes its existence to Aristotle. His division of the sciences presupposes a "teleological" order of nature, a single rational order discoverable from the nature of things by human reason and grounded in manifest purpose, i.e. a cosmos. Probably the core of this ideal is the absolute centrality it places on philosophy as the "queen of the sciences" and upon theology and metaphysics as "first philosophy," knowledge of the highest being and of being as such or of the first principles, causes, and elements of things. It is essentially based upon a philosophical view of the world, in a classical sense adaptable to Christianity. Despite is "metaphysical" investment in "first philosophy," a striking element of it is its dependence upon "second philosophy," especially "physics," the philosophy of nature derived from Aristotle, and mathematics (mainly geometry). This is in keeping with its notion of a rational cosmos, a natural teleology. Historically this is pertinent, because it provided the modern assault upon tradition in the name of modern science with one of its main points of attack. Modern science seriously puts in doubt the teleological view of nature, the concept of a natural "whole," and the metaphysics, theory of knowledge, and logic on which it is founded. Yet it is also noteworthy that this view of education gives special place to politics, ethics, rhetoric (in a broad sense, inclusive of literature), moral psychology, and logic. Over time, this has proven to be the enduring heart of the classical ideal.
This notion epitomizes a whole tradition of education classically spanning the schools of Plato and Aristotle through the medieval period to the rise of the modern, since when it has been confined to special private or Catholic schools and sometimes even then to a few departments, such as Philosophy or Theology. Nonetheless, it exerts enduring influence as a model of what a liberal education should be, even in a secular world, even in non-Catholic schools. Essential to it is that knowledge, learning, and cultivation are enjoyable in themselves and should be pursued for their own sake as well as for their practical benefits, because they are the mark of a free and "liberal" mind. Equally essential to it is a sense of the whole that an educated man should have. The primary concern of this education is the formation of the whole mind of the individual, to a free because appropriate use of his potentialities, as a microcosm of the whole. This ideal unifies classical tradition. In fact, it is the real source of the idea of liberal education, and it is impossible to formulate any concept of the latter without recourse to this classical tradition, if not necessarily in just a Thomistic form.
Behind the scenes, classical tradition is often drafted (even where it has been denied disciplinary standing) to correct the inadequacies of prevailing educational ideals in the modern academy. Its concept of knowledge addresses the human being far better than other, more abstractly theoretical, schemes, including those of recent trends in the humanities. Despite its philosophical bias, a classical education may be one of the least "metaphysical" possible, in the pejorative sense of that term. On the other hand, for reasons that are well worth contemplating, it has been reduced in modern times to a delicate coexistence with other sciences and disciplines which, from their inception, are rooted in an altogether different concept of knowledge, contrary to ancient tradition.
(2) A modern scientific understanding of what a discipline is, based on a concept of rigorous science set up originally by Descartes (though with many modifications since). Whereas the Thomistic-Aristotelian view is organized around the unity of the natural order, the scientific one is organized around the unity of method by which knowledge is created. And physics, mathematics, and engineering take pride of place as the hardest of sciences and the most practically demonstrable; the method which prevails in those departments is supposedly "science" par excellence. This view is soberly pragmatic and geared to the business of science, a collective enterprise in which the participation of an individual may be confined to the narrowest of segments without in the least diminishing its value. Although what makes science science is universality of method, its application is necessarily specialized in a way which separates disciplines into independent domains, often with little communication. Scientific method promises to each discipline a near complete autonomy of its own; no science owes its legitimacy from any other. Except perhaps for mathematics, but that is the idiom in which this independence is achieved or imitated. Thus the very universality of scientific method has a fragmenting effect upon scientific knowledge. (Ironically, contemporary post-modernists who would scatter the traditional curriculum to the winds are working out the implications of the most radically positivistic view of knowledge, supposedly their opponent.) Disciplines must pass the test of scientific rigor to be considered wholly legitimate; and the standards of "research" (complete with "verifiable" results) must be applied to all disciplines which wish to be taken with full seriousness.
This approach has produced major shifts in the balance of power in the departmental structure of colleges and universities, stripping philosophy and especially theology and in general the humanities of their classical prestige. In addition, it has led to the creation of many new disciplines in the "human" as well as the natural sciences, some of which have clearly become genuine sciences, others of which remain controversial or even discredited as real sciences (without ceasing to be part of the curriculum). Under the impact of this ideal of knowledge, a nebulous area has thus arisen in the modern academy, occupied by "sciences" which place themselves outside of traditional liberal arts but without having clearly demonstrated a scientific character. These are the so-called "human sciences." In fact, while this approach had hoped to consign the classical teleological approach to the dustbin of history, the positivist ideal of the "human sciences" has been fatally wounded by criticism in the last fifty or one hundred years. Still, classical humanities which fail the standards of science are consigned as literature to the realm of "subjective" value (mere opinion or even just feeling) or to the domain of manners. The Cartesian-positivist ideal continues to have an astonishing impact upon academia in every type of college. In particular, besides the creation of entirely new disciplines (including the philosophies of these disciplines) owing next to nothing to classical philosophy, its prestige has dominated the humanities in terms of the concepts and method of research. In philosophy, for example, this has meant reduction of the classical pursuit of wisdom to epistemology, philosophy of science, and the logical analysis of language or the linguistic analysis of philosophical concepts. Further, the explosion in academic publication which threatens to make college libraries irrelevant by burying great works in a mountain of indistinguishable ones is partly attributable to the demand that the humanities should be like the sciences, with new research and new findings every year. (It is also partly attributable to the romantic cult of originality, which insists that all of modern professors be creative geniuses.)
(3) That invented by Kant, who sought to restore philosophy to its classical prerogatives on the basis of its moral vocation as a vehicle of enlightenment, but in a form compatible with the seemingly unchallengeable authority of science. In effect, it is a kind of synthesis of (1) and (2), within the frame of modern enlightenment. Kant's philosophy has had a great if hidden impact upon the modern academy in America as well as in Germany, which has had an important influence in advanced education in this country. His philosophy tries to show that while ethics and literature (to take two representative examples from the liberal arts) do not qualify as "objective" knowledge in a scientific sense, they nevertheless allow for an appropriate rational validity given the "conditions of their possibility." Hence humanistic disciplines called into question by science and threatened with a loss of prestige by the "fact-value" distinction, are protected from the imperialism of the positivists under the umbrella of the moral vocation of the university as a vehicle of enlightenment. That moral vocation is the cultivation of an enlightened citizenry matured to a free (because right) use of its reason. The core of the enlightenment, to Kant, was thus the notion of rational responsibility, or the capacity to use one's reason autonomously. Under that umbrella, the ethical and the aesthetic win independent status; they become self-contained spheres of inquiry or knowledge not beholden to other sciences of disciplines. Each exemplifies in its own way the autonomous use of reason; reason is differently structured according to the different "conditions of possibility" of different domains of experience. But it is no less subject to a demanding rationality in each case. On the other hand, Kant is also probably the father of the "interdisciplinary," a favorite concept now. That notion can be traced to the prospect of disciplines arising on the boundaries of (or in the interstices between) more basic disciplines. Thus Kant conceived of the concept of history as an intersection of nature and ethics.
In some respects Kant's aims are remarkably classical. In the face of the nihilistic positivism of enlightenment, he sought to rescue reason in areas outside the scientific domain. He (and after him Hegel) were probably the last great philosophers to make a public defense of philosophy as independent of, and more fundamental than, the sciences which were rapidly engulfing the humanities. The modern humanities are thus indebted to him, even if they reject his theory of knowledge. Probably the most obvious impact this ideal has had on modern education is in departmental divisions. The grouping of the sciences versus the arts and humanities, still the over-all structure of the modern curriculum, corresponds essentially to Kant's distinction of "theoretical" versus "aesthetic" and "practical" (moral) reason. Within this framework, the function of the latter two are moral: to educate the modern citizen, a free individual in an enlightened republic. It is to make him aware of ethical truths and political responsibilities enshrined in philosophy, history, literature, art, etc. The aesthetic dimension has a special function, standing between and mediating the moral and the scientific: to create "communication," the formation of a "sensus communis," a sentiment of the common humanity in all of us. Human beings cannot merely communicate in abstractly theoretical terms, like those of science or for that matter "pure" Kantian morality; they must also communicate symbolically, in the language of art, if communication is to address the concrete circumstances of their existence. This is what enables human beings to identify with each other as sentient moral beings. The humanities thus become a primary reservoir of the spirit of humanity, of the human, as opposed to the purely rational. They not only reflect, they actively help to create, a common experience, a common idiom, of humanity, such as is necessary for the existence of a civil society and ultimately for the society of the human race as a whole.
In the Thomistic view, education is closely related to the church. In the Kantian view, education is especially related to the modern state. Kant's philosophy addresses a critical issue raised by modern science and society: the existence of an enlightened, educated public which deserves the liberty modern law and politics affords it by the maturity of its judgement and its willingness to think critically without getting lost in skepticism. The success of modern institutions presupposes such a public. This, for Kant, assumes genuinely expert knowledge in humanistic disciplines independent of the sciences, and also a public obligation on the part of scholars and teachers. The further vocation of the philosopher, who enjoys a special status in this scheme, is to examine the bounds and legitimacy of all other departments of knowledge, including the sciences as well as the humanities. The critical philosopher is ultimately in charge of the sanctity of truth, beauty, and the good, on which civil society depends. The unity of the curriculum as a whole thus rests on a notion of moral and political, as well as of scientific, progress. The notion of "foundations," absent in ancient philosophy, is very much tied to the notion of progress, measured by the relative "solidity" of the sciences and humanities.
(4) Finally, a concept of tradition as the unifying format of liberal knowledge. A concept of education based upon an ordering principle of tradition differs from the others in several important ways. First, it is really practical rather than theoretical; it does not rest upon (in fact it seeks to avoid) a strong "metaphysical" or "epistemological"view of what knowledge or science is. As a principle of education, the notion of tradition is pedagogical rather than theoretical. Taken as the ultimate basis of philosophy, it is open to serious objections; nevertheless, it might be practically the best way to organize a curriculum in a world where philosophical agreement can no longer be counted upon. For it, knowledge is a living phenomenon, not so much a fixed doctrine entombed in a book or method as the active process of acquiring it and making it one's own. Some will detect a hint of pragmatism here, and they will be right. But it is not a pragmatism like Dewey's, which idolizes endlessly transforming the environment for its own sake or some vague notion of "growth." Rather, its aim is that the individual take possession of his birthright, the intellectual heritage of past generations, maintenance of which is the pre-condition of human life. But, secondly, supposing a theory of knowledge based upon tradition were worked out, it would see knowledge as depending upon education (not just education as depending knowledge), that is, on the process by which it is transmitted from one generation to the next and perpetually reincarnated. For without this there is no knowledge at all, or civilized human life. Knowledge is intimately bound to the continuity of the living with the dead and to the communication between the generations of the living themselves. Pedagogically, tradition rests upon a basic reflection on the conditions of human life, on the realization that human beings need to learn what only other human beings teach them. The concept of teaching without the authority of tradition is self-contradictory. Conversely, the nature of its being taught, learned, discovered, preserved, or imparted enters into the basic structure of knowledge itself. Every generation depends on the last if it is not to slide back into barbarism, just as it must appropriate the past for itself. Thirdly, this ideal of tradition is the most "modern" of the pedagogical ideas of knowledge considered so far. It saves the great texts from the oblivion to which "progress" and fashion would otherwise consign them. It counteracts the self-destructive effect that science itself has on its own civilization. It is precisely a response to the problems classical, i.e. liberal pedagogy faces under conditions of modern life, where one has to contend with the scientific revolution, modern democracy, vocational choice, and the great debates which have swirled around western life since the end of the middle ages. And it keeps classical tradition alive in a world where philosophical agreement can no longer be taken for granted, or simply doesn't exist. So it recognizes that progress for the race is not necessarily progress for the individual, and that with respect to wisdom or knowledge of human nature, there is no progress for the race, but only for the individual, who has to recover the great deposit of knowledge which "progress" itself constantly threatens to sediment over. This knowledge, itself reiterated under different historical forms, like ancient tragedy or the modern novel, like the great works of philosophy or religion, is preserved precisely in those texts which arise in or migrate into the literature of the humanities. On the other hand, it also recognizes that human awareness and the direction of men's passions have undeniably changed (for better or for worse) over time, a fact no educator can afford to ignore.
The concept of tradition favors the humanities as the heart of liberal education. But this is based upon the nature of science itself. Modern science and technology are cumulative by nature, with important moral consequences science is powerless to address. This is even beginning to dawn on popular culture. As Jurassic Park (the book) points out (extending, I believe, arguments of Rousseau and Lessing), the increase in power science puts at our disposal is inversely proportional to the degree of virtue it demands in those who inherit it. They do not have to undergo the discipline of its original discovery or creation; they are not forced to shape themselves as human beings as a condition of possessing it. The hard work and ingenuity needed to create that knowledge is rendered unnecessary by its existence. Technology makes perpetual adolescents of us, because of the ease with which it puts great power in our hands; its power diminishes our desire (and thus our capacity) for responsibility. In the face of this fact of modern life, the traditionalist view of education seeks to reverse this effect, without denying the legitimacy of science. It cultivates liberal virtues by keeping the classics and all the great texts alive, including the classics of science itself (physical and human), abandoned by later science. Traditional stances like those of (1), (2), and (3), may be suspicious of it because it declines the attempt to found education upon the dogma of a metaphysics or an epistemology. But it may well be the most practical way pedagogically that the aims and content of those approaches can be sustained within a modern environment.