How to Fix the Humanities

For nearly fifty years, observers of academia have heard about the “crisis of the humanities.” Fewer students are majoring in such fields; hiring has been stagnant for decades; institutional morale is low. “The humanities are withering away,” said Perry Glanzer, writing for the Manhattan Institute in February.

College students no longer wrangle with much of “the best that has been thought and said.” For those who value the humanities, this is troubling, because they view the humane disciplines—philosophy, literature, the arts, etc.—as the key to cultivating a wise and virtuous society. In the words of conservative political theorist Russell Kirk, the humanities are needed to create a “class of tolerably educated men and women who will leaven the lump of society.”

One reason for the decline is that higher education has an increasingly vocational focus. But another, perhaps equally important, reason is that the humanities themselves have changed for the worse. A recent conference,  “Educating for Wisdom in the 21st Century University,” at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, put this decline into perspective.

Baylor is one of the nation’s prominent Baptist universities, and the conference was one expression of its desire to advance both knowledge and Christian faith.

Most of the scholars at the conference agreed that the worldview that seems to inform the modern research university, notably articulated by the fictional pirate Jack Sparrow—“The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can’t do”—is too narrow. The Baylor scholars argued that wisdom must also take into account what a man ought to do. Colleges should produce wise students, and some of that wisdom should be found in humanities classes.

A seminar specifically on the humanities, “Secular Humanism, Wisdom, and the Christian University,” brought together philosophers who argued that people no longer see the value of studying the humanities because the humanities have given up on God.

These philosophers endorsed part, but not all, of the view expressed by Anthony Kronman in his 2007 book Education’s End. Kronman blames the crisis of the humanities partly on universities’ elevation of research over teaching, but also on the deterioration of humane studies.

It has deteriorated, in large part, into multiculturalism (the idea that all cultures are equal) and constructivism (the idea that meaning or knowledge is always a human construction). These ideas undercut traditional humane studies by challenging the validity of Western ideals. As Baylor’s Michael Beaty expressed it, multicultural and constructivist theories are built on the claim that Western ideals, “such as appeals to a common human nature and appeals to exemplars of human fulfillment, may be mere tools of oppression.” And, he added, Western ideals are seen as “mere human constructs.”

In his search for a firmer basis for humane studies, Kronman suggested a secular philosophy based on the existence of a universal human nature. A professor in Yale’s Directed Studies Program, Kronman teaches that this universal human nature can be seen in the great works of literature and philosophy. However, Baylor’s Todd Buras said that this approach to the humanities is missing a key element.

Fundamentally, Kronman’s secular humanism (humanities without God) does not allow for a higher meaning to life—no possibility of ultimate justice or ultimate happiness.

 “To play the role Kronman needs them to play,” contended Buras, “the facts about human nature must be normative, i.e., facts about the way human life ought to be” (emphasis mine). But secular humanism does not offer much of a guide for how people ought to live their lives. Where such normative guidance comes from is an “open question in secular moral philosophy,” said Buras, leading many to abandon the search for a definitive source of right and wrong altogether.

Humanists who embrace this view, said Douglas Henry, “have little alternative to despair…. They may, like Sisyphus, roll their burden up the steep hill of late modernity’s despair, but they have no prospect of ultimate happiness and little expectation beyond marking the time.”

And despair does not make for interesting classes and rising enrollments.

In order to recover the ought and restore the humanities, then, Baylor’s philosophers say the humanities should be studied with a view to the divine. While secular humanism offers an ultimately futile view of man, a theological humanism offers transcendent meaning and hope because human actions have eternal consequences. Both ultimate justice and ultimate happiness become possible. With the reintroduction of the divine, Baylor’s panelists believe that administrators, faculty, students, and the public would once again see the value of the humane disciplines.

Darin Davis, director of Baylor’s Institute for Faith and Learning, the conference’s sponsor, emphasized the urgency of the project. “For this most ambitious and direly needed work,” said Davis, “we will need the encouragement and inspiration of one another, all of us who consider ourselves seekers of truth and lovers of wisdom.”