Whither the Humanities?

The humanities, once the core of higher education, have fallen on hard times. Today’s emphasis on education for jobs combined with humanities professors’ rejection of their own foundations are chasing students from the study of the liberal arts. Many once-thriving humanities departments are no longer viable. 

It is therefore time to consider the future of the humanities. Few are better equipped to lead the discussion than John Agresto, who was president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe for over a decade. Agresto’s genial personality, his love of the Great Books, and his bow-tied, professorial appearance belie the fact that he has been causing controversy most of his life and is unafraid to speak out on our educational decline.

He is also uniquely qualified to comment on the future of the liberal arts, having seen them from many angles as an educator in the United States and also as a senior advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. His job there was to advise the post-war minister of higher education on how to restore the university system—a system that had been mismanaged under Saddam, whose buildings were looted and damaged following the war, and that received no American funds for reconstruction

Last month at Duke University, Agresto addressed the state of the humanities in a speech titled “The Liberal Arts and the Life of the Mind.”

Weaving his experience in post-war Iraq in and out of his talk, he argued for a prominent place for liberal arts and the humanities—the cluster of disciplines such as philosophy, literature, history—both in Iraq and in the United States.

In reality, though, he expects the liberal arts to dwindle in both places, victims of prejudice and ideology in Iraq and victims of self-chosen isolation in the United States.

As a self-described neoconservative who supported the war, Agresto felt he had an obligation to help to achieve the goals of the war—the restoration of freedom to a country that had been crushed by thirty years of dictatorship. Given his background in higher education, his post was a natural.

For many reasons, however, the mission in Iraq was a failure, both his own efforts to help the higher education sector and the larger effort to bring freedom to the country. Agresto wrote a book about his experience, Mugged by Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions. The title is something of a pun; a popular definition of a neoconservative is “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” But Agresto is a neoconservative who was mugged by reality—the reality of Iraq’s fragmented and self-focused culture and the ignorance of American policy makers about the consequences of exporting democracy.

Agresto did not give up. In spite of the profound disappointment of his post-war experience, in 2007, just as his book came out, he geared up to return to Iraq, where he helped start the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani, in the Kurdish part of the country. That was a more positive experience because the Kurds are not divided between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, as the rest of the country is, and are more tolerant of other religions and cultures, including Christianity.

At Duke in February, Agresto was the guest of a professor whom he had helped flee to the United States—not during Saddam’s regime, but afterwards. In his remarks, Agresto commented that Duke was the only university to send thousands of books to the struggling universities of Iraq, and the only one to welcome a professor who had nowhere to go—in a country where to date, he says, 650 instructors have been killed, most of them by fanatic Islamic students.

In Iraq, Agresto observed, the dominance of Islam obstructs liberal arts. Unlike Christianity, he explained, Islam has no recent tradition of analysis or intellectual debate. While there’s no opposition to interpreting Shakespeare or Arabic poetry, the danger is that once someone starts to interpret literature, he or she might begin to offer a myriad of interpretations of the Qu’ran, undermining its authority. In contrast, while philosophy and Christianity have had their conflicts over the centuries, they eventually made their peace.

Liberal arts incorporate a method of inquiry—discussion, questions, reasoned argument. In Iraq, that is missing. Students are expected to listen to the professors, take notes, and regurgitate what they have “learned.” In Agresto’s book, he tells how he overheard an impassioned conversation—heated enough that his translator wanted it stopped because he thought the two interlocutors were fighting. But they weren’t. They were engaged in something that was rarely heard in Iraq—a spirited exchange of ideas.

The humanities are also disdained in Iraq on practical grounds. Secondary students who score highest on placement exams are expected to go into science or engineering; those who score a notch down become doctors and lawyers; and those who score even lower study liberal arts. (The lowest go into education—not all that different from the U.S. in that respect.) This hierarchy was particularly strict during Saddam’s era because Saddam wanted scientists and engineers, but it prevails today as well.

Because of those problems, the future of liberal arts in Iraq is uncertain at best.

In the United States, the difficulties facing liberal arts are similar in one respect—the growing emphasis on practical education and jobs. More and more American parents wonder, “What good is a major in medieval history with a minor in poetry?” 

Many of the usual defenses of liberal arts made in the United States are wrong or weak, said Agresto. For example: No, the humanities do not make you more humane. (More humane than a nurse? he asked.) No, they do not spur justice and peace. Nor are they on a higher plane than the “servile” arts, such as engineering. 

A slightly more defensible claim is that studying the liberal arts is “personally fulfilling” or they “make you smarter.” But that’s not enough.

Liberal arts are important not just because they are valuable to oneself but because they are valuable to one’s neighbors and one’s country, according to Agresto.

The humanities have their critical side—the mighty and powerful rightly fear Socratic questioning—but they also have a constructive side; that is, they offer the foundations for understanding reality and thus preparing for the future. They are especially important for leaders.

Agresto cited Thomas Jefferson, who studied moral and political philosophy in order to write the Declaration of Independence, and James Madison, who studied past governments in order to write the U.S. Constitution. Lincoln virtually memorized the Bible, both in order to speak persuasively and to understand moral issues. Harry Truman, an American president who did not have a college degree, was intimately familiar with the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Both the United States and Iraq need leaders who have such an interest in and awareness of the range of human activity in the past and thus a vision of possibilities for the future. Capable leaders cannot develop without some awareness of the complexity of individuals, their culture, and their history, an understanding that comes from having studied the humanities.

In Iraq this appreciation is largely absent. But what about the future of the humanities in the United States?

Elsewhere, Agresto has written that many academics have replaced the search for truth with certainty that they have found the truth. That has resulted in the politicization of the humanities, so that all but the most “politically correct” have abandoned humanities.

That problem aside, the future of liberal arts, in both Iraq and the United States, lies in working hand-in-hand with specialized, practical education. That is, Agresto suggests, universities should accept the value of jobs-oriented education but include the liberal arts as well. In the United States, he remarked, more students are majoring in parks and recreation than in English, more in leisure studies than in philosophy. That ratio is unlikely to change, so the two modes of education must work together.

Liberal arts must recognize that vocational education is not an enemy but, rather, potentially a friend. Otherwise, the liberal arts will continue to decline until they are too insignificant to be noticed, with possibly catastrophic results.