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.

Bawer views the deceit of Marcuse’s “repressive tolerance” vis-à-vis identity studies in the American academy as nothing less than “a betrayal, in the profoundest sense, of the promise of America,” and a contributing factor in the closing of the liberal mind, not to mention the ongoing assault on civil liberties. Speaking to the importance of studying the humanities and learning to think analytically and critically, and “to think for oneself,” while living in the university environment, Bawer writes:

It’s about experiencing wildly different products of the human Mind and spirit and making comparisons, recognizing affinities, deciding what one likes and doesn’t like…It’s about encountering unfamiliar thoughts, weighing them against one another and against one’s own observations of the world…It’s about building an understanding of the history of humankind and of human art and thought and culture so that one develops, bit by bit, a radically heightened sense of how things got to be the way they are.

The assertion that Western-based humanities studies actually fail to “humanize” plays heavily into the critique that Western culture isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. The idea that other non-Western cultures offer more humane alternatives in dealing with human proclivities has far more currency than previous generations could have imagined. Given the pervasive social problems that plague the Western cultural sphere in the new century, even the faintest whiff of idealism born of Western philosophical tenets is predictably met with derision and contempt. The notion of “the family of man” now seems like a shopworn platitude at best.

Divine Principle instructs that the juxtaposing of Eastern and Western philosophies can provide a comprehensive ideological framework for humankind to establish a culture of peace.  In his speech, God’s Warning to the World, Rev. Sun Myung Moon uses a musical analogy to demonstrate the importance of finding harmony between opposites — East and West specifically:

The union of people from East and West can be compared to playing the violin: Westerners are like the low notes of a violin while Asians are like the high notes. Americans walk with a long, swinging stride, but the Japanese walk lightly, taking small steps. More excitement is created when the two extremes unite to make one harmonized picture. We do not use the word harmony to describe primarily the unity of similar things. The most moving, beautiful harmony is created when extremes come together. The value of harmony lies in this unity and diversity.”

Those of us who possess even a cursory understanding of the Chinese philosophical tome, the I Ching, understand that the Taoist axiom of harmonizing the polarities of Yang and Yin is one of its central tenets. The fusion of Taoist principles and Confucian ethics gives rise to rationales that guided the Chinese in matters of art and social governance. Confucianism is an “ethical-sociopolitical” philosophy that emphasized the importance of humane relationships in establishing an ideal culture. The cosmology of Yang and Yin is germane to both Confucian and Taoist doctrine and was considered elemental in humankind’s pursuit of harmony and peace.

Western Christian values, according to Roger Scruton, provide the moral and ethical conviction that is indispensable in order for the grand vision of constitutional democracy to flourish — a view that the Founding Fathers surely envisioned. It is this faith conviction and “the shared meanings conveyed to us by our culture — meanings conveyed equally to the one who believes and the one who doubts,” that makes our Judeo-Christian cultural patrimony significant. Scruton avers that we should view art, music and literature in much the same way that Friedrich Schiller did, as “the repository of moral knowledge.” In this context, the humanities remain vital and the predilection to diminish and eviscerate them as the residue of a corrupt European culture born of a specific religious impulse is both counterproductive and regressive.

Since harmonization is a central goal of these two philosophies it is easy to understand the importance the Chinese placed on the role of music as a potential harmonizing agent. Moreover, the ancient Chinese believed music should embody and integrate the attributes of truth, beauty and goodness in a sublime balance of content and form. The moral and ethical aspects of that equation were not to be minimized because selflessness and moral integrity were seen as important virtues in creating a moral society. Like the Greeks in the West, the Chinese were well aware of the truth, beauty and goodness paradigm vis-à-vis the creation of music in particular and society in general.

Anti-essentialism — the belief there is no single, clear, universal, absolute experience that can provide anything remotely binding — is but another rationalization by academic progressives to diminish or dismiss any assertion that a metaphysical reality exists. Regarding the sphere of art, the anti-essentialist meme proffers that there are no common or intrinsic properties that can establish a concrete and logical deduction that there are, or may be, universal attributes that have universal appeal.

In fact, postmodern multiculturalists argue that the desire to discover truth — and live according to said truth — is but another attempt to hold power via intellectual superiority. As Allan Bloom averred, the “prideful knower” is a bane to the progressives who trade in undergraduate brainwashing. Those who grasp the value of “aesthetic education” (Schiller’s term) as a means to understand human proclivities and fashion coherent and efficacious solutions to our social problems are viewed as the enemies of progressivism. As Russell Jacoby observes, the anti-essentialist mindset “at its best…represents familiar liberalism…being ‘open’ to ‘new perspectives’…parading as something new,” and “at its worst…represents the conservative nightmare — mindless relativism.”

Postmodernism’s disdain for that which is spiritual, sacred or religious in the arts belies a fundamental aspect of the human experience. This contempt for our cultural patrimony in relation to our spiritual lives has resulted in the production of a great deal of third-rate art that passes for something meaningful for simply defying or destroying the “old contracts” of tradition and morality. When “universals” are derided for being tropes that are employed merely to attain political power, we are no longer engaging in enlightened rationale.

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Because university culture has become a hotbed for groupthink and the mindless surrender to political correctness, we’ve lost our connection to the great traditions that can, and do, provide aesthetic education and spiritual renewal. This scenario contributes to the loss of our cultural patrimony. The aforementioned assertions of Rev. Moon, Paglia, Bloom, Scruton and Bawer point to the importance of the humanities in the process of developing well-informed, knowledgeable and ethical citizens from all cultural spheres.

Christopher Hitchens famously proclaimed that “religion poisons everything.” However, we need only to point to the great musical tradition born of the Judeo-Christian cultural sphere to prove that supposition to be untenable. A poignant irony regarding Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy is many secular progressives venerate him for the causes he championed — civil rights, equality, social justice, the content of one’s character as a measure of a person’s worth — but loathe the religious faith that fueled his vision and life’s work. They see him in sociological context rather than a religious one. It’s important to see both. Rev. Moon considered Dr. King to be among the greatest Americans precisely because of his faith conviction in dealing with “man’s inhumanity to his fellow man” and his courage in asserting moral fortitude.

David Hume’s examination of aesthetics in his Four Dissertations (1757) reinforces the idea that there are, in fact, universal “essences” that have impacted the human psyche for ages. And Scruton reminds us that Emmanuel Kant “situates the aesthetic experience and religious experience side by side” and goes as far as to suggest that it is the aesthetic experience that is “the archetype of revelation.” It could be said that by experiencing beauty via the cultural legacies of the past we become more conscious of our station in relationship to both God and the natural world, and when this occurs the true and complete essence of our being is affirmed. In this regard, the humanities have the potential to “humanize” and in so doing bring us out of our “endarkened” condition and into the enlightened mindset necessary to create a culture of peace.♦

David Eaton has been Music Director of the New York City Symphony since 1985. In addition to his conducting career, he has been an active composer, arranger and producer with 55 original compositions and over 700 arrangements and transcriptions to his credit. His most recent orchestral composition, “70 and Counting!”, was performed at the United Nations as part of its 70th Anniversary concert in June 2015. In May, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by UTS.

8 thoughts on “Can the Humanities Still Humanize?

  1. There is another factor in the mix that Eaton does not mention: money. With the U.S. focus on money, jobs, and rating colleges by how much their students earn after graduating, there is a cultural shift in focus from educating the whole person to preparing him or her for employment after graduation. Quite different outcomes. Outside a core of elite schools, for whom more traditional humanities are still viable, in order to survive and attract students, U.S. colleges have been forced in the direction of job training. In such schools the humanities become the catchall for students who cannot make it in the more rigorous professional and technical programs. Colleges cannot afford to lose the tuition revenues from these students and consequently, in parallel with this, there is a general dumbing down of curriculum in order to retain them. The goal of “It’s about building an understanding of the history of humankind and of human art and thought and culture so that one develops, bit by bit, a radically heightened sense of how things got to be the way they are” is being lost to economics.

  2. David, It is an excellent question. Can the humanities humanize? I think one of the problems they suffer is an extension of Hitchen’s proclamation that “religion poisons everything.” One could better say that it is the inability to transcend individual and group consciousness that poisons everything. Religions, in their dogmatic form, fail to transcend themselves. But likewise, Marcuse advocates the same inability to transcend group social consciousness by turning his own politically correct thought into dogma. There is a sense that both the politically correct humanists and dogmatic religionists suffer from the same lack of openness that is reflected in a consciousness in which individuals and groups can go beyond themselves and see the world as something wider and with higher meaning than as they themselves conceive it. In both cases, people confuse their own understanding of absolute reality with absolute reality itself. I do believe there are people in universities who have a consciousness that can go beyond groupthink, but they are often shouted down by those who try to control university groupthink, and as David Burton indicates, financial insecurity and jobs focus of most university settings create a climate that fuels conformity and mutes courageous voices.

  3. Thanks to Gordon and David for their comments. It’s fairly easy to refute Hitchens’ religion comment based on actual facts and copious examples of the humanitarian work that many religious organizations engage in. The problem for religions, as Gordon mentions, is triumphalism — the idea that “only we have the one, true way toward salvation and redemption.” The litmus test is whether the moral principles of a particular religion are, in fact, beneficial and humane and actually result in the amelioration of our fractured human condition.

    As Allan Bloom asserts, the current, PC version of “openness” that has permeated contemporary culture “sees no enemy other than the man who is not open to everything.” The irony, of course, is that progressives are not “open” to any views that either challenges or refutes their cherished orthodoxies.

    The financial angle that David cites is one that, quite frankly, I had not thought about but it is highly relevant. In another progressive irony (duplicity), it was Frankfurt School philosopher, Theodor Adorno, who argued that the “dumbing down” of the masses via the entertainment industry and popular culture was a bane to true progressivism. Yet it is now the attempt to dumb down the culture that progressives rely on to get undergraduates to mindlessly acquiesce to progressive pieties so that parents will continue to pay big bucks to further the progressive indoctrination.

  4. Remedies? Of course. First, there must be a willingness to be pro-active in the promotion of the humanities as a “repository of moral knowledge.” (Schiller). Moreover, there must be heightened objection to the constant and misguided derision aimed at the humanities and all things born of European culture.

    Writing in The Washington Times (March 30, 2016), Suzanne Fields reports how students at Stanford University are petitioning for the restoration of courses that examine Western culture, including its proponents and detractors. Fields says that the course will include critiques on the Bible, the philosophers of ancient Rome and Greece as well as Dante, Machiavelli, Voltaire, Darwin, Marx and Freud. The student petition declares: “In recognition of the unique role Western culture has had in shaping our political, economic, and social institutions, Stanford University should mandate that freshmen complete a two-quarter Western Civilization requirement covering the politics, history, philosophy, and culture of the Western world.”

    One wonders how the word “mandate” will be viewed by progressive postmodernists who view Western culture as nothing more than power politics perpetuated by white males of European descent. Still, the petition is an indication that not all students accept the spurious claim that the cultural patrimony of the West is intrinsically and categorically evil and to be eschewed at every turn. As Fields suggests, if one is to argue for American or Western values as being viable alternatives in the pursuit of a moral and just society, then knowing the whys and wherefores of the antecedents of said values is, or should be, a sine qua non.

    The Enlightenment, in spite of its rejection of religious belief, should be celebrated for its advocacy of human rights, dignity and respect and the emergence of a culture that spawned conditions necessary for human betterment on so many levels.

  5. David,

    When I taught Literature at a university and designed my own syllabus, my survey course on Western Literature included three weeks of the Bible, unique critical commentaries by Isaac Asimov who was particularly interested in the tension between science and religion, Gilgamesh, Greek Literature…Plato, Aristotle…the Koran, etc.

    Before that, in graduate school, Drew University had a unique department in 19th century thought, so we covered the backdrop of the 18th century, Enlightenment, modernism, Romanticism, science, and culture. Since I focused on Theological Studies and Literature, I even covered historical theology, such as Augustine who influenced 19th century writers as a literary precursor to semiotic theory. At Drew, we had monthly brown bag luncheons where graduate students presented topics that were debated in a lively and open spirit.

    Of course, at a Methodist and interdenominational university such as Drew, some of our professors were more liberal and only a few of our students were from Seventh Day Adventist and more conservative churches, including myself, a Unificationist. I remember a conservative student presenting on Martin Luther and his comments about Satan. One professor stood up and said, “Now, come on. We are a graduate school level in the 1990’s….who among us would even believe in the devil?”

    Yet, I am grateful for this same professor who actually helped me to find my own voice in tackling these challenging tensions between philosophy, religion and science and to do some original thinking. Drew, at that time, was a great place to dialogue and learn.

  6. Donna,

    Did your professor like the Rolling Stones? Remember Mick Jagger, who sang:

    “Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name.
    What’s puzzlin’ you is the nature of my game.”

    • Unlikely. He was a sophisticated Schleiermacher theology/philosophy scholar (a 19th-century theologian whose ideas are close to DP but leaning on naturalism). Our professor was a Methodist turned Unitarian, turned back to Methodism upon retirement. He advised both Dr. Seidel and myself while we both completed the doctorate. But, even with all that connection to UC that we discussed with him, he couldn’t make the leap further into what seemed like too much orthodoxy/hierarchy to him. Retiring to his farm/homeland, he later heralded the working class man of labor — perhaps a bit of neo-Marxist leaning, but good real stuff to relate with our founder as the man who could relate with all people and classes.

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