There is no end to alarmism about the decline of the humanities in higher education, and, indeed, universities are eliminating programs with some regularity. A recent Chronicle of Higher Education headline screamed "The Humanities as We Know Them Are Doomed. Now What?"
But not everyone thinks there is cause for worry. Some even shrug. In a Wall Street Journal piece, Adam Kirsch insists, "Universities are not responsible for, or capable of, creating a living humanistic culture. Scholarship is an important part of that culture but not its engine." That's certainly true, and it helps to distinguish the humanities from the sciences, whose engine is research. But then the sciences could flourish apart from universities as well, at least apart from the undergraduate portion of the universities.
And the question about what should be taught in universities is primarily about what undergraduate students ought to study as part of a required general education or core curriculum. One of the peculiar features of our time is that universities have a very difficult time saying what it is that all students ought to study.
They are even less articulate about how the various and highly specialized disciplines form any kind of unity. Thus, the increasingly common practice, bemoaned but inevitable, of treating students as consumers who pick and choose what they want to study and who demand an extracurricular payoff for the money they spend on tuition. In such a situation, the recent scandal of wealthy parents buying their children spots in prestigious schools is not as surprising as it might seem.
Kirsch also thinks that the link between universities and humanistic culture constitutes an unhealthy monopoly: "The habit of seeing universities as the main or even sole custodians of humanistic culture ... is bad for universities themselves. When we consider the university the only place where society can explicitly formulate its visions of truth, beauty and justice, it's no wonder that campuses become fierce ideological battlegrounds."
But fierce ideological battlegrounds are hardly limited to universities. Moreover, it's not as if eliminating the humanities is going to make our youths' hunger for lives of meaning and purpose disappear. So long as we have residential colleges, students will — and should — use that time to try to discern their place in our world. Abandoning the humanities will only make that discernment less rigorous and more impoverished.
Of course, for some time now, dating back at least to Alan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind in the late 1980s, the right-wing objection to the humanities in our universities is that they have become infected with political correctness.
That concern is no longer the exclusive domain of conservatives. With a title that echoes Bloom's, William Egginton's The Splintering of the American Mind: Identity Politics, Inequality and Community on Today's College Campuses argues that obsession with racial and sexual identities, and the consequent rejection of any common curriculum, undermines the possibility of producing students fit for democratic self-governance. He notes the irony that identity politics on the left fosters the kind of individualism that liberals so often criticize in conservative economic policies. Both neglect community and civic duty.
The problem is that you cannot aim directly at producing community. Furthermore, no one reads Fyodor Dostoevsky, Virginia Woolf or Ralph Ellison to develop civic skills. Whether universities can begin to articulate the purpose of the education they offer in something other than instrumental or consumerist language will in large part determine whether they can regain some of the prestige they once had as institutions that preserve and pass on a common culture, not just as places where the well-connected rich send their children to ensure that they too will be well-connected and affluent.
Kirsch cites approvingly the many ways in which the humanities are flourishing outside universities. He could well have cited the increasingly common practice of reading great books with the incarcerated. In one program, the reading of Russian literature allowed prisoners to grapple with fundamental questions: "Who am I? Why am I here? How should I die?"
These programs have the practical benefits of decreasing recidivism and increasing social skills and civic engagement but they do so not by aiming directly at those goals. Rather, they engage the incarcerated as fully human (and hence not merely as criminals), as rational persons capable of being moved by great works of literature, hungry to explore what the great African-American author W.E.B. DuBois called "the riddle of existence."
Our universities would do well to visit some prisons.
Thomas S. Hibbs is the incoming president of the University of Dallas.