GRAVER: Rooting the humanities in right

In “Finding the right meaning,” (Oct. 13), Peter Gayed embodies a dangerous intellectual tradition that regrettably has grown to define American higher education.

Gayed puts forth that we resist “the temptation to privilege … interpretive methods over others,” in order to produce a more “considerate” mind. Gayed rejects professor Howard Bloch’s assertion that “the right meaning is out there,” and, more importantly, he finds it “unsettling” that it can only be found through a specific “interpretation.”

Gayed goes on to critique Bloch’s point of a vital, singular importance of the humanities: “This, to me, reads like the very antithesis of a modern humanistic tradition which seeks a decidedly inclusive spirit.” Gayed views the humanities as a pursuit without either a definitive ends or means. His rejection of an accepted methodology goes hand in hand with his rejection with the idea of conclusive result.

Unfortunately, Gayed is spot on in stating this outlook is well within our modern humanistic tradition. But, nonetheless, we are in a disastrous state of affairs.

This tradition is one of relativism. It is one of multiculturalism. It is one where objective good is a lofty ideal opined on by great minds that we now contextualize as merely “literature” or “history.” It is one where the “inclusive spirit” is an end in itself while virtue remains an empty vessel to be filled at the whim of each respective student.

Gayed imprudently characterizes ideas to the contrary as “easy denouncements” by the intellectually lazy clutching to their axiomatic worldviews in hopes of simple answers and uncomplicated rationalizations. Gayed suggests that “perceived necessity” is the only plausible grounding for adhering strictly to a single worldview. Incontrovertible principles are multiple, equal and ultimately meaningless.

Gayed fails to recognize that we need not reinvent the wheel with every moral or virtue for them to be understood as objectively true. These assertions are not abstract or arbitrary impulses, but rather the rigorously developed products of thousands of years of human contemplation.

The intellectual hubris Gayed objects to lies not with Bloch, but with those like himself. The proper humanistic tradition is in fact one of great humility — a deference to the cumulative wisdom of mankind. It is Gayed — who rejects time-tested absolutes for widespread inclusion and tosses out centuries of labored-over methodology for a multitude of created interpretive methods — who exhibits this fatal intellectual conceit.

It is not easy, as Gayed’s line of reasoning suggests, to strive towards truth within the pillars and guideposts established by our ancestors. It is a lifelong pursuit of great difficulty and struggle. It is, though, quite easy to treat the pursuit of knowledge as a shopping mall, jumping from isle to isle, content with an individually manufactured aim removed of any objective standard.

Once one places aside the self-congratulatory indulgences that come from supreme commitments to ideological tolerance, we are left with an education system devoid of purpose. Mr. Gayed’s unyielding refusal to ever consent to denouncing something as invalid is inseparable from a tacit endorsement that nothing is.

The pursuit of truth is one of exhaustion, not creativity. If we disregard the prescriptions and prejudices of the humanities, virtue and knowledge will be without defense to the encroaching threat of relativist-driven nihilism.

Humanities can be treated as universally applicable because they deal with transcendent truths — truths that don’t just transcend cultures, but those that are beyond our physical world. Here lies their superiority to the sciences and here lies their vital necessity.

American higher education has long perverted the true meaning of a liberal arts education. A true liberal arts education is not the opportunity to choose between various interests and perspectives, each equal in merit and value in their own way, but the duty to learn how to live within the decided moral responsibilities inherent to being a free man. This is impossible without absolutes, in both ends and means, cultivated by the humanities.

If Mr. Gayed’s school of thought equalizing the humanities as a study prevails, it will, intentionally or not, rob Yale of the opportunity to genuinely ever again ground itself in light or truth.

Harry Graver is a sophomore in Davenport College. Contact him at harry.graver@yale.edu.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    *Mr. Gayed’s unyielding refusal to ever consent to denouncing something as invalid is inseparable from a tacit endorsement that nothing is.*

    And with the word “denounce” the wolf emerges from the sheep’s clothing. The agenda is not to pursue truth and present tentative conclusions for others to consider. No it is to ARRIVE at ( an apparently *a priori* ) Truth with a capital “T” and DENOUNCE all those who do not also so arrive.

    This is called bigotry.

  • Skeptic

    Wow! I am left wondering how one “learns to live within the decided moral responsibilities inherent to being a free man.” The answer seems to be to know Mr. Graver’s “absolutes … cultivated by the humanities.” Sounds jusl like another disguise for reliance on some sort of supreme law-giver.. where else can one find “absolutes?” A pretty muddle-headed understanding of “the humanities” as well as Gayed’s arguments.

  • pgayed

    I would like to offer a more formal reply. Alas, I am a poor medical student with licensing exams scheduled in fewer than 30 days. For the time being, I would like Mr. Graver to elaborate on two points.

    “The proper humanistic tradition is in fact one of great humility — a deference to the cumulative wisdom of mankind.” Please specify who or what is included by the term “mankind.”

    “Humanities can be treated as universally applicable because they deal with transcendent truths.” Please list a few of these “transcendent truths.”

    *— Peter Gayed*

  • roflairplane

    This column is spot on. Students with Mr. Gayed’s understanding of the humanities seek baseless comfort for fear of harsh, inconvenient truth.

  • nmmp

    As a great admirer of Bloch, I feel compelled to defend the old man. Please forgive the lenght of the comment.

    When Mr. Gayed misunderstood Bloch’s column to be an evangelizing attempt at making the humanities the search for an absolute, objective, white, elite Western morality at the expense of everything else, I shook my head. Now, Mr. Graver has sneakily taken Gayed’s flawed understanding of Bloch’s position as an excuse to transform Bloch’s comments into precisely that kind of evangelizing search for Truth. And he even gets to come off as defending Bloch. This is pure sleight of hand, and not very good one at that.

    Both Graver and Gayed don’t get where Bloch is coming from. Bloch is a product of the intense intellectual climate of the 1960’s and 70’s. (If you want to read a very amusing tale of the wild antics he witnessed at Berkeley, I suggest you check out his novel “Moses in the Promised Land.”) Bloch is no conservative, at least not intellectually. His scholarly work is grounded in Foucault, for God’s sake! Don’t forget that his most famous book is a feminist genealogy of the medieval origins of misogyny. So much for the “accumulated wisdom of mankind!”

    To my understanding, Bloch’s call for “right meaning” comes as a reaction to what he sees as the nihilism that prevails the humanities today, which I think is a fair point. We need to learn to ask questions of value again, and this will mean saying “no” to some people–sorry Mr. Gayed, but, yeah, we will not stand for female genital mutilation. However, I think that Bloch has Nietzsche’s “revaluation of all values” in mind more than a traditionally–or even divinely–received truth, as Graver wants us to believe.

    If anything, it seems to me that the exchange between Gayed and Graver is a perfect example of the crisis in the Humanities that Bloch attacks. The problem is to think that the only two options are either a vague, PC relativism or a return to traditional values. We, the humanists of today–the philosophers of the future–have to reinscribe meaning in the world. This is our responsibility, this is why we need to read philosophy and literature: we have to remake a broken world, and the only way to do so is to be willing to affirm that some things are right and others wrong. But it is a mistake to think that this means a return to old school morality, or to think that those assertions have the force of an “absolute truth” that has become more and more accessible to the combined efforts of mankind throughout history. Bloch is too smart–and has read too much Derrida–to want to resurrect Hegel

    Our task is much more difficult than that. We need to be brave enough to stand behind our interpretations, but we also need to be brave enough to recognize that those interpretations are grounded only in our care and in our will. This seems to me to be a more accurate representation of Bloch’s message: Heidegger, Nietzsche, Foucault–not Buckley, not MacIntyre.

  • bcrosby

    @Nicolas: This was a beautiful statement in general, but I must object to the rather groundless (and ill-supported) attack on MacIntyre. I imagine you’re no great fan of his work, but I think he is a subtler and more interesting thinker than you give him credit for (certainly, even you must admit that he is a subtler and more interesting thinker than Buckley!). Although he is willing to mine traditions long discarded as irrelevant by a victorious Enlightenment rationalism, the man is profoundly uninterested in yanking humanity back out of modernity. He may be a Thomist, but he is a Marxist too.

  • 81

    Can style get any more pompous?

  • The Anti-Yale

    Harvard anthropologist [Arthur Kleinman in a speech at Dartmouth][1] last week warned against turning the humanities schools into MIT’s :

    *Kleinman questioned what will happen to American education if more schools transition to what he called the “[Massachusetts Institute of Technology] model,” in which the majority of focus is placed on applied science, and any focus on other fields is relatively modest.
    “What is the future of humanities and social sciences if we end up with most of our universities being MITs?” he said. “MIT is a great university, but it’s a certain kind of university that [Dartmouth is] not and [Harvard is] not.*

    [1]: http://Kleinman questioned what will happen to American education if more schools transition to what he called the “[Massachusetts Institute of Technology] model,” in which the majority of focus is placed on applied science, and any focus on other fields is relatively modest. “What is the future of humanities and social sciences if we end up with most of our universities being MITs?” he said. “MIT is a great university, but it’s a certain kind of university that [Dartmouth is] not and [Harvard is] not.

  • The Anti-Yale

    Harvard anthropologist [Arthur Kleinman in a speech at Dartmouth][1] last week, warned against turning humanities schools into MIT’s:

    *Kleinman questioned what will happen to American education if more schools transition to what he called the “[Massachusetts Institute of Technology] model,” in which the majority of focus is placed on applied science, and any focus on other fields is relatively modest.
    “What is the future of humanities and social sciences if we end up with most of our universities being MITs?” he said. “MIT is a great university, but it’s a certain kind of university that [Dartmouth is] not and [Harvard is] not.*

    [1]: http://thedartmouth.com/2011/10/14/news/humanities