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Over the past few months there has been a marked increase in stories about the decline of the humanities in higher education. Sometimes the coverage emerges from a particular political vantage point: The humanities are dying because they have been corrupted by leftist ideologues. Race, class, and gender, that great triumvirate, have replaced Plato, Chaucer, and Milton.

Or the problem is posed in terms of jobs: Young people must be realistic in this day and age, and humanities majors simply don’t earn as much as other graduates. It’s a basic pragmatic calculation. Business majors will make more money than those with English degrees. On this reading, the decline of the humanities actually makes sense, and it’s a surprise that it hasn’t happened earlier.

Sometimes the decline is put into the context of university survival: Humanities courses are costly to teach and seem expendable. Why not buy into a system of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, where students can have immediate access to all the best lecturers in the country? This would eliminate the need for extraneous, “luxury” departments, of classics and unpopular foreign languages, for example. Online courses could even be used as substitutes for large survey classes in history and political science and similar fields.

Perhaps the most original take on the decline comes from Lee Siegel, himself a lover of literature and an advocate for the humanities, who nevertheless thinks that universities systematically destroy them for young people. “The classroom,” he writes, “ruins literature’s joys, as well as trivializing its jolting dissents.” Today, “novels, poems and plays that had been fonts of empathy, and incitements to curiosity” have become “occasions of drudgery and toil.” For Siegel, the decline in official humanities enrollments might just push students to read books on their own and enjoy them all the more.

There are kernels of truth in all these approaches. But just what is this experience we’re all lamenting the loss of, and what’s so bad about losing it? After all, most computer-science majors graduate without a significant number of humanities courses, yet they clearly possess an impressive set of technical abilities. Other majors, too, produce people extremely well trained for their fields. They seem to navigate well enough in the world outside the academy. What then is so troubling about the idea that fashion design might replace art history or literature in the curriculum? Times are changing, and we must be practical, after all.

Most of us will likely find such a line of argument troubling, if not downright scandalous. But why? And why, despite the modern academy’s insistence that disciplines not be ordered hierarchically, do many of us implicitly (if quietly) continue to value the humanities more highly than we value technical fields? Moreover, even in the face of the apparent “uselessness” of the liberal arts, why do we think that they offer something of inestimable value?

Part of the contemporary problem in making a convincing case for the humanities is that their defenders, despite producing blue-ribbon reports about the current state of education, often do a shockingly bad job of explaining why they are important. In The Heart of the Matter, a 2013 report sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a reader is confronted with language like this: “Among other benefits [studying the humanities] strengthens clarity of written and oral expression, critical and analytic reasoning, and the creativity to think outside the box.” It might go without saying that pairing “creativity” with “thinking outside the box” in a single sentence is a striking example of neither.

The report is filled with platitudes of this kind. Studying the humanities offers students “mental empowerment” so that they can go forward in life armed with “a sense of social responsibility” and “intellectual and practical skills that span all areas of study, such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.” The humanities “help us understand what it means to be human and connect us with our global community.” All of this might remind us of what Irving Babbitt said about similar matters more than one hundred years ago: “The firmness of the American’s faith in the blessings of education is equaled only by the vagueness of his ideas as to the kind of education to which these blessings are annexed.”

Is it any wonder that nobody is persuaded? Without even dwelling on the pervasive emphasis on “skills,” the reader feels that the report’s language is both ­vacuous and moralistic, full of empty phrases that aim at “guilting” young people into activities that are supposed to be good for them, like eating a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables and getting daily exercise.

But the real source of a desire for liberal learning is not and has never been a sense of guilt or obligation, and its reasons cannot be expressed in bureaucratic manifestos. The authentic spring of liberal learning is simple: It is love. This love often originates in an uneasy sense of having missed something important and then—even as one is unsure of what it is—in desiring that something.

So in reflecting upon our own experiences of humanities education, we should ask first not “What should we put on the reading lists? Can we formulate a canon of greats? Why indeed should students be reading these books at all, rather than preparing for their future careers?” but rather “Who was it?”

Who first showed us, as younger versions of ourselves, that we lacked something of importance? Who gave us a sense that our hopes of escaping the vulgarity and banality of popular culture might be satisfied, such that we now enjoy a qualitatively different kind of experience?

Perhaps it was a high-school English teacher, a woman who assigned her class Shakespeare plays to read and discuss for an entire year. Maybe it was a family friend—a bookish man who despite his job as a civil servant had a rich and lively intellectual life. It could have been a college professor, someone who exposed his students to Tennyson and Trollope, or to the art, so foreign to our modern sensibilities, of men like Poussin and Bernini. Maybe it was a parent who read novels with gusto. What matters is that somewhere we caught sight of a vision of the intellectual life, a vision that is essential for wanting to engage in it ourselves, and also for seeing that we need help in doing it.

The actual texts—that long list of “greats”—lie there inert and ready to be picked up, as Lee Siegel implies young people will be inclined to do. Strictly speaking, anyone can read them at any time and, if one is ready, harvest what they have to offer. But these books are far from easy, and they often quickly end up back on the shelf. I cannot count the number of eager freshmen who have told me they wanted to get a head start on Plato’s Republic before reading it in class. I do not think a single one has ever successfully made it past Book I. Nor do I blame them.

As a young college student, I had just such an experience when I attempted to read Aristotle’s Politics on my own, without a teacher. I undertook this project knowing this book was “good for me,” almost as if I were embarking on a diet-and-exercise routine. I made a noble but fruitless attempt before packing the book away, at about page twenty-five, next to my hand weights in the dresser drawer.

The point is that almost all of us, unless we are exceptionally gifted or precocious, require more than bureaucratic exhortation or the abstract knowledge that the study of the humanities is important. More is required even than strong personal desire and a sense of incompleteness. We need a particular person to tell us about a particular book or author or field of study, to demonstrate its significance in practice, to act as a master to whom we can apprentice ourselves. We must, in quasi-religious terms, be evangelized so that we come to desire what we see and to understand it as beautiful, compelling, worthy of pursuit. We must see why it is worth loving.

As I have suggested, the beginning of this experience is a feeling of discomfort or inadequacy. A friend of mine recently told me about his first college attempt at reading Augustine’s Confessions, which he thought at the time was the most difficult book he had ever encountered. Yet he knew it was important, and was ashamed that he could not comprehend it.

He saw that he had a choice: either give up and turn to something easier, or make the attempt. With the help of a professor he persisted, and ultimately came to see the book as an incredibly rich source for thinking about questions that had already occurred to him: Why not engage in a life of hedonistic sexual pleasure, as Augustine did, and as everyone around him was currently doing? What does true friendship entail, and how can one deal with the untimely death of a friend? How should he think about God?

These are not technically academic questions but instead ones he had already encountered and felt unprepared to address. Reading Augustine did not give him easy answers or a plan of action but showed him, instead, that he was not alone in confronting these situations. Eventually, as he told me, he was also led to see that other writers had dealt with such questions too, and had answered them in somewhat different ways. This, he recalls now, was the beginning of his education in the humanities. It spoke to the “human” part of him in a way that his biology and chemistry classes had not.

Other experiences provide analogies. If we possess a religious faith, we probably recall that it originated in some particular person or persons, in a particular church or place. True, reading religious books on one one’s own may be an integral part of faith, but it is usually not the experience that moved us at first. Instead, it was a priest, teacher, parent, or friend who demonstrated the ideas and doctrines of our religion to us in a living way. We came to see faith not as an abstract intellectual system but as a practice, a set of behaviors that we began to take part in even before we understood. We imitated, like young children learning language, only eventually and gradually growing into understanding.

Another analogy may be drawn to the ultimate tradition of apprenticeship and personal interaction: the study of classical music. When one meets a musician, the first question is always “Whom did you study with?”Even in this age of technology, music is still taught in a setting where a teacher’s brilliance is not displayed for the world but rather focused on and oriented toward a single student. Indeed, the fundamental object of study is not the music on the page or the teacher’s prowess but our imperfect fingers trying to play that music and to own it for ourselves. The essence of the activity is the interaction of score, student, and teacher. It is a real interaction that takes place in real time, between people who come to know and care for one another.

Music is not exceptional in this regard. I recently discussed the mystery of learning with a colleague, proposing that perhaps things are different in the sciences and in math. Maybe in those fields, I suggested, you can simply absorb information without the need for a teacher like the ones I have been describing. Immediately, and without hesitation, he disagreed. No, he said, leaning forward and appearing to construct a geometrical figure in the air in front of him: Working in the tradition of mathematics is no different at all from music, carpentry, cooking, or ancient philosophy. Math and science, he said, are taught in the spirit of the humanities even if their questions seem not to be as existentially pressing.

What is acquired in this kind of apprenticeship is not the bare technique of solving a problem but rather a way of approaching it. One cultivates a habit of mind, a style of thinking about the particular problem and problems like it. The most important knowledge comes from a master’s interaction with you, not from the principles he might choose to distill into a set of instructions that could be distributed to anyone. We often learn as much (or more) from watching the manner in which a practiced teacher responds to a question as we do from the content of what is said.

Thus the Who Question is crucial, even if it is almost always neglected. It is neglected, I think, because it is so deeply personal and because it requires us to admit—to others besides ourselves—that we “fall in love” with our teachers and mentors and they, in turn, with us. This is not exactly romantic love, though it can certainly contain elements of it—for example, the classic schoolgirl crush. It is also not parental or familial love, though it shares much with these kinds of love, too. One friend of mine, a longtime professor, often speaks of his best students with pride, indulgence, and, quite obviously, genuine love. They are very much like his children, even if he has not raised them in all the ways a real father does. To see this evokes Erasmus’s apt observation: “How much more does he give who gives the means for living well than he who merely gives life.”

Of course the popular media love to dwell on the salacious aspects of teacher–student relationships and the many ways in which corruption and abuse can manifest themselves. Such possibilities do exist, and they should be guarded against. Yet these dangers should not blind us to the enormous good of desire properly channeled. “Abusus non tollit usum,”abuse does not take away use. Most of us who have experienced liberal learning will recognize that eros in the classical sense is fundamental to education. Indeed, without it education becomes something else altogether: sterile training, a form of information delivery, job preparation, or merely a hoop to be jumped through as a way of gaining the credentials to go on to the really important tasks that lie ahead after graduation, once one has left the supposedly oppressive routine of college.

But those of us who have experienced liberal learning did not find it to be oppressive but rather supremely liberating. It was not liberation from custom and tradition but from the tyranny of the current, the up-to-date, and the pressing. It opened up to us a world we could never otherwise have known, and it probably affects us deeply to this very day.

Such is the fundamental experience we must recall, or imagine, when thinking about the importance of the humanities. I am convinced that no amount of discussion about the virtues of “critical thinking and writing” or “engagement with the global community” or even “civic duty” will ever persuade a young person that such study is worthwhile. What motivates young people (as it does older people) is desire, once awakened: a vision of something one wants, or wants to become.

I have said little about the content of humanities education. This is because the content is almost infinitely variable and because others have already said so much of value about it. Of course there are battles to be fought about the politicization of the curriculum and the watering down of substantive content within departments; and it does seem that there are at least a handful of foundational books that everyone ought to have read. But in theory at least, any field, any book, any course of study, presented in the right way, can provide an entry point for the awakening of a desire for liberal learning.

For me it was a course in northern baroque art that focused on a study of Rubens. Most of us probably think of Rubens as a painter of women whose body shapes are now decidedly out of fashion. Like the rest of the class, I grudgingly began to look at the paintings, certain that I would always be repelled by their lack of accord with what I already knew, quite definitively, to be beautiful.

But as the days went by I underwent a remarkable transformation. The teacher explained the paintings in the context of both Flemish history and Rubens’s personal story. He showed us that the women in the paintings were not just bodies but Rubens’s wives, whom he had loved deeply; the children were his children, with names and histories of their own. He showed us the development over time of Rubens’s style, the debt he owed to the classical tradition, and the ways in which other painters subsequently built on his contribution. As time went on, I grew to love the art—but more than this, the field of art history itself, and the professor too. It was not for his personality (austere and somewhat distant) or his looks (short and balding). It was for the vision and desire he had given me, perhaps partially without knowing it.

There have been others like this too, as there are for many of us once we’ve awakened to the joys of this kind of study. And there is no one model for it. Sometimes we develop a relationship with a particular person as a mentor, with whom we meet and talk regularly. These relationships may last for years, or a lifetime. In other cases, like any ordinary friendship, they die away after a period of time. It is not even always the case that the person must take an intense interest in us, or we in them. At times we may simply perceive in a particular classroom a sense of “sacredness” that says to us: Here is what we should be doing.

Fortunately, such relationships can also come later in life, once we’re older and more established but still in need of guidance from someone we respect. Somewhat surprisingly, as we mature, we may come to realize that we have switched roles, becoming in our turn mentors for students who need what we did at their age.

Of course things do not always go well in this kind of personal interaction. Just as we recall those people who were extraordinarily influential and inspiring, we also remember just as vividly those who pushed us away from a subject: the teachers who were boring or positively harmful to us, those who did not encourage us, the ones who seemed only to be going through the motions. We have all heard people say that a particular teacher “ruined the subject for me.” And of course something is lost here. Still, despite such dangers I am convinced that the personal element in liberal learning cannot be valued highly enough.

Even as we value this learning, however, we need to give up our desire to instantiate our experience for everyone we meet in some great vision of reform. Very often what we personally value in our teachers, and what we judge best in our colleagues, is not what others, not even our best friends, may need or desire. What university professor has not had the experience of hearing a student gush with praise about another professor whom he or she personally finds to be a less than excellent teacher? We should not simply assume that the student is benighted but instead remember our own fallibility, or, in Christian terms, adopt an attitude of humility.

There is tremendous variability in human need, and this is what a university so nicely addresses. It offers a diversity of approaches, tailored not to the one perfect student but to the multiplicity of students who arrive with as many needs as there are human beings. This is also what we learn from studying the humanities: that the human things—our desires, emotions, habits, abilities, and inclinations—are diverse, complicated, mysterious. Some will find nourishment in art and music; others will prefer sociology or philosophy.

Thus the problem of a “crisis of the humanities” cannot be easily or simply solved because there is no way of generalizing this experience for each and every student. It cannot be packed up and shipped out in a curriculum plan, or universalized across disciplines, or even across a single department on a single campus. Because it so intimately concerns human beings, and the variability of our loves, such awakenings of love’s intellectual desires will evade the grasp of rationalist reformers, remaining elusive and idiosyncratic.

This points to the fundamental difficulty of talking about humanities learning in terms of “crisis.” The authors of studies with titles claiming to point to “the heart of the matter” recommend vague but important-sounding measures like “strategic planning groups and reform.” They also encourage “researchers in the humanities and social sciences” (never mind that most scholars and teachers in the humanities don’t refer to themselves as researchers) to “apply their work to the great challenges of the era as well as pursuing basic, curiosity-driven research.” It is hard to understand what this means, let alone how it might be put into practice in the world we actually inhabit.

This irritable “solutionism” is a major part of the reason we find ourselves in a crisis to begin with, if indeed such a crisis exists. The typical reasoning goes more or less as follows: Fewer people want to study the humanities; this is a social and political problem; we must make people want to study the humanities; how can we do so in large numbers and across all classes and genders? The entire issue is posed in terms of problem and solution, sailing right by the question of what the activity actually is whose loss we are lamenting.

Irving Babbitt observed presciently in 1908 that Americans are an impatient people, concerned with efficiency. Action is natural to us; contemplation is not. But studying the humanities asks for the opposite of efficiency and speed. Reading serious books and conversing with others require leisure and a suspension of everything with which we ordinarily concern ourselves.

If we do not quite, as Machiavelli recommended, put on our “royal and curial robes” to converse with the ancients, we must nevertheless give these books our undivided attention and time. The rewards of such study consist in knowledge about the content of the texts. But more important than this are the habits we may cultivate almost by accident: patient attentiveness, the willingness to suffer refutation, an attitude of equanimity in the face of the most pressing current issues. Karl Jaspers put it beautifully: “The spirit of meditation, the capacity for penetrating self-analysis, the way of unbiased thinking, an openness for all substantial possibilities—all of this cannot be directly taught, but it can be awakened and trained in the comprehension of great philosophizing. How it will come about is incalculable.”

With habits like these, we will be able to see several things about the current “crisis of the humanities.” First, not every problem lends itself to a policy solution, or to any quick solution at all. There are multiple, complex reasons for the decline in humanities enrollments, and it is highly doubtful that a set of global reforms devised by any committee, no matter how prestigious, could have any impact at all on these numbers. Even technology, universally proffered as the answer to all our modern dilemmas, can do little to help us here.

But the most fundamental insight we gain about the “crisis mentality” is that we must reflect more carefully on the essential character of the experience whose loss we are lamenting. The way to do this, as I have argued, is to recall how the desire for liberal learning first emerged in us. When we do so, we will remember that it did not happen in isolation.

Many of us are now at a point where the scaffolding of college and graduate school has been taken down and we can pursue our love of liberal learning somewhat independently. Yet we continue to live alongside those mentors and teachers who originally showed us what was worth studying. Knowing their minds as we do, we wonder what they might think of the book we’re currently reading, or how they would respond to some outrageous statement we’ve run across. We try to imagine what they would think of us now, and hope that we have been good caretakers of the vision they originally gave us. They remain vivid and living presences in our lives, emblems of the wonderfully human element that lies at the center of studying the humanities.

Perhaps we are indeed in the midst of a very grave crisis. On the other hand, it may always have been this way, as C. S. Lewis implies in his famous essay “Learning in War-Time,” or as Philipp Melanchthon put it, a bit earlier, in 1538: “Each one rushes toward the mean and gainful arts, they are slaves to their detestable desires and to their stomachs, and they know no god besides these. Only very few take care to refine and honour their minds, the better and more divine part of them.”

Either way, what is required of us is not a drive to change an entire educational culture but a patient, self-assured carrying on of the tradition that has been handed down to us by our mentors. We need not worry that we are not reaching the entire world; we must instead be faithfully present to those whom choice or chance have put in our paths, showing them as best we can that this kind of study is emphatically worthy of love.

Elizabeth Corey is Associate Professor of Political Science in the Honors Program at Baylor University.

Image by Suzy Hazelwood licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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