In a great article on The New Criterion Mark Bauerlein explains a bit why the humanities are worthwhile. After being classically educated and hearing again and again that the reason to study Latin was “to increase an understanding of English vocabulary” and “to learn how to think logically because of those declensions and conjugations,” I’m happy to hear him point out how self destructive these arguments actually are. Here is a longer excerpt:
“In a word, the defenders rely on what the humanities do, not what they are. If you take humanities courses, they assure, you will become a good person, a critical thinker, a skilled worker, a cosmopolitan citizen. What matters is how grads today think and act, not what Swift wrote, Kant thought, or O’Keeffe painted. No doubt, all of the defenders love particular novels and films, symphonies and paintings, but those objects play no role in their best defense. Ironically, the approach resembles the very utilitarianism the defenders despise, the conversion of liberal education into a set of instruments for producing selected mentalities and capabilities.”
Bauerlein goes on to suggest that the best defense of the humanities is in fact the humanities themselves. If teachers of the humanities would only be so humble as to admit that they are stewards and guides we might all still be able to make our way to enjoying the good stuff. If they would only be so kind as to sit down so we can see the picture hanging on the wall behind them we might get to enjoy it. As in the case of learning Latin, the point is after all so that you can read and enjoy things that were written in Latin. O tempora! O mores!
(The above picture is my own, hand study charcoal on toned paper)