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.

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