Over on NRO, Gilbert Sewall takes many words to say what could be said in few: Education policymakers and reformers don’t champion the humanities chiefly because, for all the noise they make about keeping us aware of our higher purposes or enriching us with the noble and beautiful, the humanities as actually taught and studied today have virtually nothing profound or even interesting to say. “The humanities diminished state is to a large degree self-inflicted . . . Much of what is rewarded as advanced thinking on campus is undecipherable, trivial, filtered, or capricious. Hiring, tenure, soft money, and university publishing help protect these modes of thought.”
It is ironic that, far from helping us understand what it means to be human, the humanities are deeply dehumanizing. When they are not enslaving us to arbitrary identity categories based on our race, sex, class, and (now) sexual preference, they are exalting the sovereign self and its arbitrary tastes as the measure of all things. Math and science are generally the fields singled out as allegedly hostile to the cultivation of humane life. It’s true that scientific technocracy is a real danger , but it’s not clear to me why a pseudo-scientific reduction of the human being to a mere material body is more dehumanizing, or more on the rise in our culture, than a pseudo-humanist reduction of the human being to a mere receptor of aesthetic stimuli, or a mere participant in identity politics. Indeed, the worst reductionists among the humanities and the worst reductionists among the sciences often join arms and make common causewe are seeing that now in the Common Core initiative , for example.
The comparison between the humanities and the rising star of STEM education , which Sewall mentions only briefly, is worth dwelling on. Education advocates love STEM primarily because STEM educators by and large actually deliver what they promise to deliver. True, the STEM field could use a bigger vision than it currently has . As Jim Clifton and many others have pointed out, there is an idolatry of the teaching of math and “basic science” in most STEM circles, to the neglect of a more fully realized vision of how the human community benefits from technological progress and the entrepreneurial role of STEM professionals in society. Nevertheless, the key to the popularity of STEM does not lie in the narrow-mindedness of advocates and funders who lack a broader vision of the human; it lies in the fact that STEM educators deliver what they say they will deliver. Humanities educators by and large do not deliver anything they promiseor much of anything else of real value.