I have always understood the need for theology based on the admonition of Paul’s Epistles, but I have come to prefer the translation “salutary teaching” to “sound doctrine.” The former translation conveys, rightly in my view, the interrelationship between the health of the teaching and its capacity to bring health to the student.

The purpose is to underscore what ancient philosophy had understood about itself and the purpose of the liberal arts. At their best, the humanities should lead to human flourishing. As Augustine discovered when he read Cicero’s exhortation to philosophy, his heart was profoundly changed so that he became a genuine lover of wisdom. In the words of Paul, salutary teaching produces piety or godliness, which gives rise to a moral life grounded upon the intrinsic social nature of human existence. Piety concerns the proper relational bonds between humans and creation, one another, and God. This is the basis upon which Christians could embrace the humanities and the liberal arts. The humanities contribute to human flourishing by adjudicating between approaches to the moral life and opening the person up to transcendence.

I thought of this recently as I re-read Harvard’s report on the humanities “Mapping the Future” in light of the debate over academic freedom that Peter Lawler addressed. Faced with the difficult task of reviving student interest in the humanities, the committee chose to focus on defining them in terms of preparing students to engage in the liberating transformation of life. This is the meaning of liberal in the liberal arts or the humanities. The result has led to a strong tension in the report that, as Thomas Lindsey notes, translates into Harvard wanting “to have its relativist cake and eat its academic freedom, too.”

The report describes the liberating effect of the humanities as instilling the capacity to critique from a disinterested perspective—the Enlightenment contribution to education. There are three traditions derived from the humanities that inculcate this capacity, according to the report. The first is a tradition of criticizing errors in texts and approaches to historical periods commensurate with Renaissance humanism. Like their forebears, classicists must practice a “suspicious hermeneutic.”

The second is a tradition of “disinterested, artistic enjoyment” that moves beyond the ideological content conveyed by any work of art to an appreciation of the beauty and form of the piece. Art can be re-appropriated for its aesthetic value once freed from the ideology it conveys. The third is a tradition that seeks to re-appropriate the past in the service of identity politics. Through the lens of gender, race, and sexual orientation, the past can be re-read in a way that creates “communities of resistance,” which can become “liberating, transformative social movements.”

For “Mapping the Future”, the idea of the humanities as promoters of human flourishing—their value as a humanism—seems entirely negative. The humanities only teach us how to peer beneath the surface and find the ideological thread or how to enjoy art and literature without the negative side-effect of forming a positive moral self. The only self that is formed by the humanities is one that can “withstand the mesmerizing, often dehumanizing force of powerful institutions.”

In the latter half of the document, “Mapping the Future” makes an interesting turn to talk about how the humanities can aid culture-formation or destabilize it and asserts that the humanities must be employed responsibly toward a better future. One gets the impression from this part of the document of the need for a more integrationist model of the humanities in which interdisciplinary studies become the means of constructing a holistic vision.

With its concern for historical truth and invocation of the need to facilitate the cultivation of the human person and society, “Mapping” at this point comes tantalizingly close to this vision only to fall back into statements that “the fundamental sources of value in a culture are neither necessary nor universal.” It cannot make up its mind as to what kind of person the humanities should cultivate: a person who criticizes in pursuit of the truth or an unmasker of ideologies who has given up the quest for truth and settles for constantly unmaking and remaking the world.

What is needed is a teleology to bring the tradition of critique together with the tradition of a holistic vision of life in the service of human flourishing. It is unfortunate that “Mapping the Future” seems so concerned with preserving post-1970s approaches to unmasking ideologies that it takes precedent over “salutary teaching.” Why not develop a vision of the humanities that seeks veritas through the particularities of life? It is in this context that academic freedom finds meaning—it supports a plurality of voices and traditions (past and present) when debating what vision of human life maximizes flourishing, which is the ongoing project of any society that seeks to perpetuate itself.

Without a teleology that sees justice, truth, and beauty as more than human constructs, could this view of the humanities produce a Martin Luther King, Jr. whose final speech at Mason Temple in Memphis offered a vision of a promised land for African Americans and the American experiment as a whole? Without a teleology, has such a view of the humanities relegated art and music to mere pleasure-producing?

While arriving at what is true, good, and beautiful occurs through the particularity of human constructs, those transcendentals are not reducible to such constructs. If educators want students to become interested in the humanities again, they must reclaim this goal for any genuine humanism.

Articles by Dale M. Coulter

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