There is a line from one of the choruses in Sophocles’s Antigone that first struck me some thirty years ago: “There are many terrifying things, but none is more terrifying than man.” The word for “terrifying” is deliberately ambiguous, and Sophocles chose it with care. It can mean “inspiring terror” or it can mean “inspiring wonder and awe.” In that ambiguity lies the greatness, and the mystery, of what it means to be human. That we can inspire awe both in our virtues and in our vices sets us apart from every other creature. And in the reduction of the liberal arts to an adjunct branch of contemporary politics, we are seeing the elimination of that ambiguity, that complexity, that capacity for awe.
I was reminded of that line from Antigone and of our current malaise last week, when Tony Esolen penned a beautiful paean (or poignant elegy?) to liberal education and its connection to human identity. It is hard not to read his words without mourning for the current generation of students in higher education. They have been short-changed, cheated of understanding what it actually means to be truly human. I am no poet, but as a historian, I resonate with his concerns.
Earlier this year, I heard Tony give a lecture on what is wrong with contemporary education. He highlighted four curricular lacunae of immense significance: We no longer teach poetry, philosophy, or history, and we do not impart a sense of transcendence. The latter point is, of course, really a function of the first three. To lose poetry, to lose metaphysics, and to lose history is to posit a present that really transcends nothing at all. For there is nothing to transcend.
History is both my profession and my hobby. Every year a student will ask me why I chose to study and teach church history. I give numerous answers, but all perhaps are variations on the same theme. It is not church history that primarily interests me, but church history. I love reading, writing, and speaking about the past. Unlocking that past and seeing thereby the complexity of what it means to be human—those are the key attractions for me. History forces me to engage with times and places and people who think and act differently and yet with whom I share a basic humanity. It thereby helps me to understand the world I now live in. And it forces me to relativize my world and my pet concerns.
That points to the problem with the contemporary discipline of history: Put simply, it is not history. It is politics dressed up as history, and rather skimpily dressed up at that. It operates, either consciously or unconsciously, under the shadow of the young Marx, who declared in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.
Was ever there such a passage of brilliant historical insight and philosophical mischief? Yes, Marx is right: We all must live as heirs of the past. But to posit that past as a nightmare is a tendentious political point, sweeping in its generalization and corrosive in its implications. All of the current malaise in the historical discipline—from its obsession with trivia to its mindless iconoclasm—might be seen as nothing more than an extended footnote to Marx’s comment. The recent speech by Niall Ferguson at the Folger Shakespeare Library is a brilliant summation of what many of us who teach history have thought about the direction our discipline has been taking for decades. When history is there only to be erased or overcome, we detach ourselves from our roots and place ourselves in the merciless hands of the sempiternal flux of present tastes and fancies. To borrow from L. P. Hartley, the past—our past—is a foreign country. We should therefore visit it first to learn in all humility. To do otherwise might look just a wee bit, well, racist, as the charming campus SJWs would no doubt phrase it.
This brings me to the campus cult of diversity that currently drives the liberal arts. The irony is that this cult really despises difference and demands uniformity, because the concerns of the here-and-now are the only ones it acknowledges as legitimate. That’s why it has proved again and again that it cannot engage with any other culture, any other time, any other place, except on its own narrow terms.
Tony Esolen fell in love with literature because it enabled him to know himself. I fell in love with history for the same reason. History relativizes me and my time. It forces me to try to think as others think. It reminds me that I do not transcend the world, the world transcends me. And, more than anything else, history shows me the complexity of what it means to be human—both the greatness and the terror.
We should not be fooled by the fads of the new educational order. The rebarbative and impenetrable language of deconstruction, post-colonialism, and critical theory may offer a veneer of sophistication, but the fruits of these are remarkably simple-minded: Campuses appear to be places where humanity has been reduced to a cartoonish moral binary of Pepperlanders and Blue Meanies, places inhabited by toddlers in adult bodies who need coloring books and cuddly puppies to cope with the stress of Trump’s election and even routine academic examinations. The loss of poetry is one symptom of this malignant stupidity. The trivialization of history into a species of contemporary identity politics is yet another.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.