In “The value of the humanities” (Sept. 29), Professor R. Howard Bloch seals the necessity of a humanities education by stating that “[t]he Humanities draw the lines of a life worth living and the swerves of a life devoid of such meaning.” More than this, the humanities raise the very ground on which we make our departure: “Philosophy prepares us to die,” Professor Bloch reminds us with the words of Michel de Montaigne.
But what about the poor ranks who know nothing of Montaigne and his meditations? And what of all the corners of the world as yet untouched by the humanities? Is it possible that the inhabitants of such places are incapable of drawing “the lines of a life worth living” and thus destined for “the swerves of a life devoid of such meaning”? The evangelistic current of Professor Bloch’s essay is startling.
I don’t believe Professor Bloch intended his essay to be understood this way — as a summons for a new Gospel — but the parallels are nonetheless difficult to ignore. He states, in his concluding paragraph, that “interpretation of the type in which Humanities students are trained is the prerequisite for the making of right meaning.”
Right meaning? Here, I’m less concerned with what is meant by “right meaning” than with the notion that the “right meaning” is out there and, more unsettling, only available to “interpretation of the type in which Humanities students are trained.”
The sentiment’s implications are troublesome. If we accept the humanities education and its interpretive methods as “the prerequisite for the making of right meaning,” those interpretations of the world offered by persons outside the Tradition of the Humanities (or just not close enough to it) become invalid. As members of a cultural and intellectual lineage valuing the democratic spirit, we will, of course, politely hear out these alternative interpretive tropes, but deep down we know that ours is the real and true way to understand the world because, as we’ve been taught, a humanities education is the prerequisite for the making of right meaning.
Here, we are compelled to ask, “‘prerequisite’ for whom?” Professor Bloch’s answer seems to be everyone — the world over. If we had any doubts about the evangelistic ambitions of the essay, those doubts are put to rest in the final sentence: “It is time to think of the Humanities … as an applied and universally applicable discipline, a way of acquiring the most essential tools for understanding the world in which we act and move.”
This, to me, reads like the very antithesis of a modern humanistic tradition which seeks a decidedly inclusive spirit. To say that some particular thing is a prerequisite for the making of right meaning is to risk the easy denouncement of anything or anyone without the “necessary accreditation.” Our belief that the humanities provide “the most essential tools for understanding the world” rests on the more serious but less often articulated presumption that those without the tools do not really understand.
What we ought to hope and strive for, I would argue, is a stance which, no matter how strongly it prefers its own interpretive brand, resists the temptation to privilege those interpretive methods over others. This prescription seems paradoxical — I would agree. But the value of such a stance is in adopting a frame of mind which surrenders the perceived necessity of one’s particular way of knowing the world. In so doing, we admittedly become less grounded in our own conceptions, but we become less dogged about them, too. The result is a mind more considerate than it is tolerant. It is the difference between allowing others to do as they please and allowing ourselves to be changed by those others.
Peter Gayed is a medical student and a graduate affiliate of Saybrook College.