The other day I heard a report on NPR about a festival of the book and of art and music in Mosul, a city in Iraq coming back to life from being under the heel of Isis terrorists. Under the previous regime, reading books, listening to music and making art were forbidden on pain of death. I was moved by the sound of Iraqi music and by the story of a man who learned English by means of a book he hid in his house during the terror. He spoke of the joy of his humanity restored through being able to walk through the streets with a book in his hand and music in the air.
This story reminded me of an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Eric Hayot, titled “The Imminent Death of the Humanities” (July 6, 2018). Fewer students are majoring in the humanities these days and so are jobs for Ph.D.s in the humanities fewer. “The humanities are institutionally more alone and more vulnerable than ever before, “ writes Hayot, “more at the mercy of a university’s financial decisions or a new dean’s desire to prove his or her toughness by consolidating departments or reducing faculty size.” The doomsday clock is apparently striking midnight for higher education in America.
The death of the humanities implies that education is no longer about history, philosophy, comparative religion. No longer about painting, poetry, sculpture, drama, architecture, dance, or music. No longer about the rich varieties of human culture and spiritual experience. Education, the new paradigm suggests, should be about learning the skills needed to survive and thrive in today’s neo-liberal economic system. In the new paradigm, the ideal achievement of one’s education would be to land a job at Goldman-Sachs.
The old idea of a college education did include preparing for one’s vocation. But there was also space to explore. There were so-called ‘electives’; courses you chose because you were curious about something, Irish literature, ancient Roman history, Romantic music, and so on. The idea was to take time out to discover your interests and passions, your ideals and the range of your imagination. Higher education was to enhance our humanity, not just make us more efficient cogs in the economic machine.
Death of the humanities? What does that mean? I spent some decades teaching the humanities in universities, and formed an idea of what I was doing. I could cite names of courses and titles of books—but that would be misleading. The humanities aren’t about acquiring information or the ability to appreciate certain things labeled ‘classics’ or culturally important—this again would miss the mark.
My conception of the humanities is radically simple. The humanities are about acquiring the skills we need to become flourishing human beings. Our strictly marketable skills are technical and specialized (like computer programming). But there are more general skills that are about becoming more evolved human beings.
For example, we all think; but how well do we think? Is our instinct for reason intact? Do we know anything about critical thinking? We all make choices, but how effective are we at performing them? Are we aware of our capacities to improve our lives? We all have feelings, but do we feel too much and too often or too little or not at all? We all have fives senses, but how well do we observe, how vividly experience the colors and sounds, forms and textures, of the world around us?
We all (excepting our psychopaths) have a sense of right and wrong, but how awake, pointed, and fair-minded is our perception of the right and the wrong? Again, we vary in these abilities. Some people don’t mind if their leaders are liars or stewed in corruption; others do mind and attempt to use their minds—and even risk speaking out against the wrong.
All these abilities we possess need to be refined and educated. To expel the humanities from higher education today is to abandon our future to a world dominated by inhuman calculation and the barbarism of profit worship. Thrown into seas of information on the Internet, studies have shown that we are losing the capacity for “deep reading”—another sign of the death of the humanities.
Reading that qualifies as deep offers a chance to enter into a dialogue with the author’s mind. Reading online, you’re subject to endless distractions and interruptions--ads, pop ups, likes, notifications, sign ups, emojis, sudden audios, power-losses, and so on. The endless mobility of the Internet fragments consciousness and makes it increasingly shallow.
In the post-humanities world we’re entering, you see people walking around fondling their “smart” phones or staring at them as they walk, dead to the world around them--phone-entranced and phone-possessed. The death of the humanities in higher education is a sign of descent into possession by technology.
We need the humanities because we need to fully awaken our humanity. We need to work on the skills that make us human. It takes time to learn to think, to feel, to use our senses and our imagination, and to empathize with victims of injustice. Technology has its place, and getting good jobs are important, but we also need to learn the basics of being human. If we screw this up, technology and the mania for money will turn us into monsters.