The Humanities Proposition


Bringing to mind Plato’s students talking with their teacher in a grove just outside Athens, New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote, “It’s tough to know how much philosophical instruction anybody can absorb at age 20, before most of life has happened, but seeds can be planted.” Above: Joshua Cristall (1767/1768-1847), Plato Teaching in the Grove at Academia, 1820. National Galleries of Scotland.

At a moment when so many are questioning the value of universities, from outside the academy and on campuses themselves, we do well to recall the robustness of the university since the Middle Ages.  Through innumerable crises of confidence and identity, the university has shown a remarkable ability to perpetuate its mission of generating new knowledge and teaching students how to pursue, create, assimilate, and reflect on it.  This resilience is not to be taken for granted, however. While the idea of the university may be enduring, universities themselves are subject to constant change, and some, we know, to obsolescence.

A university is only as strong as its ability to deal with the forces of change—not to resist them doggedly, but to redirect them in productive ways. When particular models of higher education are no longer sustainable or desirable, they will disappear or lose market share. The independent liberal arts college, for example, educated about a quarter of all college students in 1950, but today enrolls only two percent of all undergraduates. Struggling liberal arts institutions have had to shut their doors or redesign their programs in pre-professional directions.  Meanwhile, at a time that broadening access to higher education as a pathway to employment is high on the national agenda, community colleges are growing even as they are strained beyond capacity, now educating almost 50 percent of all undergraduates.  The apparent transformation of the liberal arts college, the decline of the share of the humanities in general education, and the growth of community colleges are interconnected phenomena.  Where do they leave the role of the humanities in liberal education today?

It is a critical question for The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, as it is our mission to reinforce, promote, and defend the contributions of the humanities, the arts, and liberal education to human flourishing and the wellbeing of diverse and democratic societies.  This mandate has become more formidable as the nation appears laser-focused on STEM fields and a model of workforce preparation defined as a tight matching of technical skills onto first jobs. 

In 2014 President Obama—by any measure the president most supportive of education in a generation or more—told an audience at a GE plant that Americans would earn more in manufacturing than they might with an art history degree. The comment was widely received as shorthand for the futility of the humanities and the liberal arts as educational pathways. Although I belong to that tribe, I did not feel personally offended and Obama apologized quickly to art historians.  It is striking that our education advocate-in-chief felt it necessary to promote a form of career-technical education that he probably would not accept as sufficient for his own daughters. The episode demonstrated that the humanities and liberal arts community has work to do in answering some pressing questions.

Why should President Obama, or anyone for that matter, care about the liberal arts as a model of higher education?  And if we agree that the holistic model of a liberal education is to be sustained and made available much more widely across our society, who will be our allies in making the case for it?

Without a well-articulated, understandable rationale for the liberal arts as an integrated, holistic form of education with clear benefits to individual and society, our allies will be few and far between. Support for the liberal arts and the humanities, whether from foundations or family tuition dollars, is surely in doubt.  We need allies in shaping and communicating that rationale to the not-already converted, and these allies may come from unexpected places.

I am not in the habit of endorsing the views of David Brooks, but his New York Times op-ed last year on “The Big University” offers provocative thoughts on what one might call the “values proposition” of the university, and especially the humanities. 

New York Times columnist David Brooks

Columnist David Brooks. Photograph courtesy of the New York Times.

Brooks begins by sketching the 20th century secularization of the American university. He describes the hydraulic by which, as the university’s purpose of forming the moral natures of students drained out of its mission, specialized research and professionally oriented curricula began to drive academic education.  He draws a glum conclusion: 

“Universities are more professional and glittering than ever, but in some ways there is emptiness deep down. Students are taught how to do things, but many are not forced to reflect on why they should do them or what we are here for. They are given many career options, but they are on their own when it comes to developing criteria to determine which vocation would lead to the fullest life.”

Just as the reader begins to expect a full-throated indictment of the consumer-driven campus caught between pervasive substance abuse and trigger-warning hysteria, Brooks pivots to signs of change on the nation’s campuses, painting a glowing vision for how higher learning can reclaim the holistic rationale that motivated it years ago. As examples of moves that universities are making to broaden conceptions of achievement in life, he prominently cites interdisciplinary institutes grounded in the humanities.  His text mentions the humanities three times—not as often as the words “moral” and “spiritual,” but more than any other set of disciplines. 

And his take on the transformative force of technology points to the value of the campus as a place:

“If colleges are going to justify themselves, they are going to have to thrive at those things that require physical proximity…. Very few of us cultivate our souls as hermits. We do it through small groups and relationships and in social contexts.”

Brooks prescribes two strategies that go to the heart of why we might care about the humanities:

Universities, he says, can teach students how to investigate what they already cherish and can teach them new things to love:

“College is about exposing students to many things and creating an aphrodisiac atmosphere so that they might fall in lifelong love with a few.” 

To create such a climate, he concludes, philosophers, literary critics, and art historians need to teach students to apply the humanities.

His notion of applied humanities is not about the preparation of students for work in museums or medical humanities programs, but about giving them tools for handling “the concrete challenges of living,” learning from great works about how one can “escape the chains of public opinion… cope with grief or…build loving friendships.” Although Brooks is focused on moral reflection, his words echo the widespread call today for undergraduate courses that ask bigger questions, and for majors that don’t look like miniature PhD programs.

My endorsement of Brooks’s diagnosis is somewhat equivocal. What fascinates me, however, is the degree to which his argument intersects with the views of Judith Butler, the critical theorist at UC Berkeley, in her writings on the humanities and public life.

Critical theorist Judith Butler

Critical theorist Judith Butler. Photograph courtesy of the University of California at Berkeley.

Butler is one of our great theorists of language, gender, and the way they shape and are inflected by social structure. She is one of the academy’s most convincing, dedicated voices from the left. Butler deplores the double bind in which the humanities are caught today: on the one hand the anti-intellectual, religious right attacks the humanities as relativist, and on the other neoliberal ideologues bemoan the humanities’ lack of measurable socioeconomic value.  This condition leaves Butler, as she puts it, “vacillating between feeling like a crazy leftist and a conservative.” At least traditional conservatives still care about reading deeply, sitting together and discussing complex texts. They still allow for an education that cannot be measured in terms of earned revenue or career outcomes alone.

Butler calls on us to protect the special capacity of the humanities to help us develop critical judgment and act on it in the public sphere. Unlikely though it may seem, Brooks appears to provide at least some of the arguments that could be mustered for such a defense of the humanities. He makes four powerful points about the value of humanities education:

  1. He insists that our universities are challenged because the humanities have lost their centrality in the academic enterprise, and wishes to see this condition reversed. Without the humanities, he suggests, there can be no true universities.
  2. He calls on critics as well as proponents of the humanities to allow philosophy, literature, and art to do in universities what they can do uniquely among the disciplines.  He does not ask them to produce jobs, instead acknowledging their value in shaping capacities for critical reasoning of many kinds—aesthetic, ethical, and political. 
  3. Brooks is not calling for a return to a faith-based academy.  He asks universities to be more intentional about their provision of “enchanted goods that the marketplace doesn’t offer.”  He acknowledges that their educational mission can only be reclaimed in a secularized, “open and aspiring way.”
  4. Brooks puts undergraduate, integrated education back at the heart of the university.  His concern is with the formation of young people who may not be the most likely philosophers yet, but in whom seeds can be planted. 

This language of planting seeds, of cultivating moral and mental faculties in proximity to teachers and peers, uses the vocabulary of the ancient academy.  For that academy, Plato’s students talking with their teacher in a grove just outside Athens remains the prototype. Brooks identifies the place-based ethos and value of the liberal arts college as the saving grace of the university.

He is Judith Butler’s awkward ally.  We need more of them, and he has shown us why.

Mariët Westermann served as executive vice president for programs and research at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation through August 2019.