Can the Humanities Still Humanize?

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By David Eaton

david_eaton“The humanities are ruined, and the universities full of crooks. Art in America is neglected, coddled, and buried under chatter. The right looks down on artists; the left looks down on everyone.”

This caustic bit of pessimism is from a 2005 interview by Robert Birnbaum with Camille Paglia in the online magazine The Morning News. Paglia is one of the great straight-shooters in contemporary academic circles and a provocative read.

Though I share some of the pessimistic derision Paglia expresses regarding the perfidy of the “effete literati” (her term) that is now ensconced as the arbiters of cultural discernments and values, I remain hopeful that we can find our way out of the malaise of misguided misreadings regarding art, culture and the human condition. It is without question the humanities as understood and appreciated by those of a generation or two ago have undergone a radical transformation due to the pervasive and deleterious effects of postmodernism and political correctness. But this is not a new phenomenon.

In 1977, the American sociologist Peter L. Berger despaired over the condition of American universities as they evolved into “vast identity workshops,” where “for four years…students sit under trees with their shoes off and engaged in the not so arduous task of finding out who they really are.” For Berger, this kind of speculative navel-gazing had the effect of turning students into creatures of comfort rather than inquisitive seekers of higher knowledge.

In his book, The Victim’s Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind, literary and film critic Bruce Bawer alludes to the stark contrast between John Stuart Mill and his advocacy of free speech as an essential characteristic of university culture, and neo-Marxist Herbert Marcuse, who called for “the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly” from groups and movements that didn’t advocate the leftist, progressive agenda.

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