Servile Oblivion

Our updates from the Humanities Research Seminar continue, this week with a post by Jacob Howland, McFarlin Professor of Philosophy at the University of Tulsa. Jacob tackles some tough questions about the value of a liberal arts education and what role the university plays in keeping classical heritage alive.

Liberal education is the individual assimilation of cultural memory: we recover the historical and metaphysical ground of our being by studying the accumulated riches of the past. This humanly essential undertaking, which every generation must begin anew, rescues hard-won truths from oblivion and makes it possible to discern meaningful signals within the general noise of time.  But in today’s universities, liberal education—and especially its core, the humanities—has been largely eclipsed by programs of study whose ostensible social utility offers more immediate and measurable rewards.

For the past two summers, New Haven’s Elm Institute has offered a student seminar entitled “What Are The Humanities For?”  The readings, most decades old, remain fresh and surprising.  James Stockdale reveals in “The World of Epictetus” that studying the Stoics at Stanford helped him to survive seven years of captivity in Hỏa Lò, the Hanoi Hilton.  Jonathan Rose’s “The Classics in the Slums” includes testimonia from early twentieth-century English colliers and laundresses “kindled to the point of explosion” by books borrowed from the libraries of the Workers’ Educational Association.  Machiavelli sheds the day’s muddy clothes at the door of his study and is “received with affection” in “the ancient courts of ancient men.”  “Across the color line,” W. E. B. Dubois summons “Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.”  Organic images abound in these essays and aphorisms.  Salvador Dalí teaches the paradox that “Everything that is not tradition is plagiarism,” because only art nourished by the “blood of reality”—by the essential accumulation of richly oxygenated life that circulates in the tradition—can be truly original.  Noting that “the primary mission of a university is the transmission of a precious heritage,” Roger Shattuck’s “Nineteen Theses on Literature” compares the inherently conservative institution of education to “our gonads … the most stable and protected element in the body.”  For all of these authors, the classics pulse with spiritual potency.

How does one enter into this vital and saving heritage—or rather, how does it enter into us?  This pressing question of cultural memory is largely ignored in the contemporary university, where servile arts have crowded out the liberal ones.  The crisis of liberal education goes back at least to the nineteenth century.  “Every living thing can become healthy, strong and fruitful only within a horizon,” Nietzsche observed in On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life (1874).  But far from providing a quiet enclosure in which the young can become “finished, ripe and harmonious personalities,” the modern university offers only a “noisy pseudo-education” that paralyzes rather than quickening individual development—that in fact “sees its advantage in preventing your becoming ripe, in order to rule and exploit you unripe ones.”  Modern education produces sterile and weak personalities that have forgotten how to feel and think deeply and fruitfully—a “race of eunuchs,” in Nietzsche’s memorable phrase. 

The overvaluation of the servile arts is in fact a defining feature of modernity.  George Orwell wrote in “Politics and the English Language” (1946) that “in our age there is no such thing as keeping out of politics.”  The following year, Josef Pieper delivered two lectures, “Leisure, the Basis of Culture” and “The Philosophical Act,” in which he described “the so-called ‘political invasion’” of all spheres of human existence as a consequence of the “total claim of the world of work” in modern life.  For Pieper, the industrial model of education—the smothering of the liberal arts under the demand that teaching and learning be judged exclusively by the criterion of “social service,” or contribution to “the functional nexus of the modern body social”—is merely a special case of the totalizing impulse of the modern ideal of work, and of the radical devaluation of non-instrumental knowledge that this impulse entails.

This totalizing impulse has developed in ways Nietzsche and Pieper probably didn’t anticipate.  Universities now compete to offer curricula that are “relevant” not only to the contemporary economy, but to any number of causes under the umbrella of social justice.  This second prong of the “political invasion” has accelerated the academy’s abandonment of the tradition of humanistic education.  Many professors now regard the classics—the books that lifted Helen Keller out of isolation and ignorance, and that filled Richard Wright with “nothing less than a sense of life itself” as he labored to escape the Jim Crow South—not as a seedbed not of personal growth and cultural renewal, but of misogyny and racism.  The classics are supposed not awaken and instruct, but to demean and marginalize.  They are by no means to be lovingly implanted in young souls, but pressed through a steel mesh of criticism so as to extract object lessons in inequality and injustice.  Little wonder that enrollments have plummeted and programs are collapsing across the humanities: the professoriate has burned the crop and is busily salting the fields.

“We’ve got plenty of artificial intelligences,” the philosopher Stanley Rosen once said; “I’m looking for real ones.”  Real, creative intelligences always spring from an organic accumulation of human life—an accumulation that has for millennia been preserved, cultivated, and transmitted in the tradition of arts and letters, music and scientific exploration.  Today’s servile education produces college graduates who have lost a vital connection with the pulse and ferment of reality, and whose minds are filled with a jumble of fruitless abstractions and social constructions.  This loss impoverishes all who feel the sweet, inevitable pull of the call to become distinctively individual, flesh-and-blood human beings.  Worse, it condemns many who have never yet felt this call to “run nameless through the innumerable multitude” (in Kierkegaard’s words), living life in ignorance of their true and unrepeatable names.

The survival of the liberal arts and the humanities—of education as such—depends on the existence of teachers who treasure the precious inheritance of the past and are allowed to transmit it to their students.  This is a hard truth, for if present trends continue, such teachers will all but vanish from American colleges and universities within a generation.  Still, the humanities will not be entirely extinguished.  Quietly sustained by individual readers and writers, artists and poets, the vital tradition will shelter underground until it someday sprouts in new forms.