When the economy falls on hard times, everything comes under a new level of scrutiny. Institutions, practices, and habits must justify themselves on more rigid terms, and those found less than essential must be marginalized, if not abandoned.
In the university, this often means that the various disciplines must compete for funding and attention, each presenting its case before the administration, the government and the public.
Unsurprisingly, this competition tends to be a losing game for the humanities. The sciences can easily justify their efforts by pointing to advances in medicine and food production and the overall standard of living. They have numbers and charts to corroborate their case. The social sciences have perhaps less to show in terms of manifest utility, but they can nevertheless appeal to their crucial role in economics, politics, mental health and (to employ an ugly but very social-scientific phrase) the maximally efficient management of human resources.
The fruits of the humanities are not so apparent. No poem has ever saved someone from cancer. No painting has ever fed the hungry. Philosophers cannot present statistics that prove the usefulness of their theories.
Thus, while the American public continually bemoans our lagging behind other nations in math and science education, nobody seems terribly up in arms about, say, the mediocrity of the American philosophical tradition or our ignorance of classical antiquity. The humanities are nice, we believe, and often quite stimulating. But they are not essential.
It is at this point that the defender of the humanities might feel inclined to call to the stand someone like Professor Keating from the film Dead Poets Society. In defense of poetry specifically and of the humanities more broadly, Keating tells his students that “medicine, law, business, engineering — these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But,” he continues, “poetry, beauty, romance, love — these are what we stay alive for.”
Keating does not fall into the trap of attempting to justify the humanities on the basis of their utility, their furtherance of material subsistence and prosperity. Rather, he recognizes that not every human endeavor must legitimate itself on the grounds of bodily satisfaction. The demands of the body must, of course, be met, but so too must the demands of the soul, the heart, the spirit — those aspects of man that distinguish him from the brutes. Seen in this light, it is palpably absurd to downplay the humanities, for in their cultivation rests what is most truly human.
But if man is, as Keating implies, more than body, if part of man transcends the realm of animals, in what does this transcendence consist? Does it reside simply in his more highly evolved brain, his expanded consciousness? Traditionally, the answer was that man transcends animals because he participates in the divinity of the gods. Man is the creature that straddles the chasm between brute and deity. He is the union of body and spirit, finite and infinite, temporal and eternal.
In the modern era, coincident with the slow and hard-won death of God, the humanities have striven to carve a space for themselves without reference to the divinity that once gave them meaning. And certainly the modern world has been no stranger to works of genius, whether in philosophy, literature or art. But the question is whether the humanities can endure, can flourish, without reference to anything above humanity.
A casual survey of the current state of the humanities leaves me doubtful. The modern imagination, seeing nothing overhead to which it can aspire, descends further and further into all that is base and vile, even to the point that Aliza Shvarts can be heralded as “great.” Likewise, modern rationality, having been uprooted from its grounding in the divine, grows suspicious of itself, to the point that the very idea of seeking truth has in many circles been abjured entirely. Modern music — well, you get the idea.
As valiant as Professor Keating’s humanism may be, it falls short. Humanity needs more than humanism. Inspiration, the breath of the gods, disappears when the gods disappear. What the humanities need most is not more funding, but a renewed sense of the divine, a renewed reverence for the holy, a renewed appreciation for man in his proper place — the paragon of animals, yes, but also under God.
More funding would be nice, too.
Bryce Taylor is a sophomore in Silliman College.