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View Full Version : Nostalgia for a mythical past Eden of the humanities



ColoradoGuy
06-24-2013, 11:30 PM
This really isn't so much about Lit/Crit, but I couldn't let David Brooks' latest column (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/21/opinion/brooks-the-humanist-vocation.html?ref=davidbrooks&_r=0) pass by without comment. And the topic would bore to death the posters in the politics forum.

Brooks has really just repackaged the old stuff of Allan Bloom (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/69980/Allan-Bloom): serpents in the humanities garden like gender studies, history from below, etc., have ruined the humanities. Of course nostalgia for an imagined, more wonderful past, before it was trampled by hippies, liberals, or whatever, is a standard conservative trope. But this one seems over the top to me:

"Somewhere along the way, many people in the humanities lost faith in [their] uplifting mission. The humanities turned from an inward to an outward focus. They were less about the old notions of truth, beauty and goodness and more about political and social categories like race, class and gender. Liberal arts professors grew more moralistic when talking about politics but more tentative about private morality because they didnít want to offend anybody."

Brooks' wringing of hands over the decline in the humanities also seems not to be supported by data. The percentage of college students studying one of the humanities has been remarkably stable since the 1940s. You can see data (and a nice essay) about that here (http://chronicle.com/blognetwork/edgeofthewest/2013/06/10/the-humanities-crisis/). There was actually a big spike in the 1960s, from which we have declined. But if you regard the spike as an aberration (Hippies!) you don't see much change over the long haul -- we're down maybe a little.

I think he's mostly upset that, for example, historians now study everybody, not just the important people. And literary theorists can also cast their nets wider.

I'm not worried about the humanities. They've survived many centuries and will keep chugging along.

RichardGarfinkle
06-25-2013, 05:54 AM
His column is strange in many respects. His reference to Professor Weintraub is even stranger. Weintraub was teaching Western Civ when I attended the University of Chicago in the early 1980s. David Brooks and I are the same age, so presumably his mythical age was happening then when we were both at college.

But even at the U of C where the idea of Common Core classes was invented Western Civ was not a requirement. A year of Humanities and a year of Social Sciences were required, but there were a wide variety of classes that would qualify for those.

We didn't come out of our freshman year in lock step having all supped at the same Euro-centric table, far from it.

So how many generations before his own is Brooks talking about?

spamwarrior
06-25-2013, 07:00 AM
I went to a small, Catholic liberal arts college with a four semester course called Development of Western Civilization. It was a requirement for ALL students, and all professors were encouraged to teach it at some point, with the exception of scientists and business faculty. It was very Eurocentric, and everyone hated it, from the professors to the students -- the incoherent organization, the sense that the world was bigger than Western Civ, and an impatience with the notions of "truth, beauty, and goodness" that Brooks speaks about. We tried over the four years I was there to revamp and redesign the course (short of doing away with it altogether, which everyone seems to WANT to do). When I graduated, I had dinner with a few of my English professors, and we talked about our dislike for the Eurocentrism of the course, and our frustration with administration's conservatism. I remember having a sense that we were the exception among other institutions, and that our view was a nostalgic one, if not a true one. Just think of the impossibility of creating a coherent narrative out of Western Civ! It can't be done, and it shouldn't.

So Brooks's attitude is not alien to me, but I don't agree with it. Also, as a humanities PhD candidate, I don't know many humanities professors that speak like this of what they do. I don't think his view is at all representative of what other humanities professors think, and certainly it is not nuanced. "Educating the emotions with art in order to refine it, offering inspiring exemplars to get it properly oriented"... WHAT? oriented where? oriented how? what is truth? what's wrong with race, class, and gender? What is wrong with liberal arts not being about shaping one's own private morality?

The humanities are not disappearing. If they don't have the same face that Brooks recognizes, that may not be a bad thing.

RichardGarfinkle
06-25-2013, 12:45 PM
I think the phrase "properly oriented" speaks volumes. Brooks is a sentimental conservative. He's the Academic equivalent of the person who wants the country to be like Leave it to Beaver.

But this kind of thinking is strongly anti-intellectual. It objects to the kinds of questions that have arisen and are now being tackled. He wants questions unasked, and new points of view and subjects unstudied. He seems to want that, not because there's something wrong with the subjects and qeustions, but because they disorient and confuse academics. Isn't dealing with confusing subjects an academic's job?

His comments about art remind me the French Acadame during the late 19th Century when they were decrying the Impressionists.

So much of Brooks for the last few years has been sentiment masquerading as reason.

Maxx
06-25-2013, 06:42 PM
I think the phrase "properly oriented" speaks volumes. Brooks is a sentimental conservative. He's the Academic equivalent of the person who wants the country to be like Leave it to Beaver.

But this kind of thinking is strongly anti-intellectual. It objects to the kinds of questions that have arisen and are now being tackled. He wants questions unasked, and new points of view and subjects unstudied. He seems to want that, not because there's something wrong with the subjects and qeustions, but because they disorient and confuse academics. Isn't dealing with confusing subjects an academic's job?

His comments about art remind me the French Acadame during the late 19th Century when they were decrying the Impressionists.

So much of Brooks for the last few years has been sentiment masquerading as reason.

I can't read stuff like Brooks writes; it makes me hopping mad. So I haven't read the text in question -- but then I've heard this same objection to actually doing anything in the Humanities for decades. The history thing (I got a BA in history -- indeed that is my only degree) is completely puzzling. How can you do history by studying stuff that has already been covered? If you are going to do new work that is worthwhile you are going to have to do something other than what conservatives are willing to think of as history which other than insane platitudes about Rome, Greece, decadence of Rome, the corruption of the Medieval Church blablabla and really superficial rehashes of balance of power crap and WWI and WWII and the Cold War --I cannot imagine.
Sorry. Just ranting here.
And on the arts it is even worse. It's like visitors from another planet being offended because they are on another planet. Why aren't all planets like my imaginary world?
Sorry. More ranting.

Maxx
06-25-2013, 06:57 PM
I went to a small, Catholic liberal arts college with a four semester course called Development of Western Civilization.

Okay, I read the Brooks. Profoundly vacuous at best. Here's Weitrub though:

“If I do not come to feel any of the love which Pericles feels for his city, how can I understand the Funeral Oration? If I cannot fathom anything of the power of the drive derived from thinking that he has a special mission, what can I understand of Socrates? ... How can one grasp anything about the problem of the Galatian community without sensing in one’s bones the problem of worrying about God’s acceptance?

Where is this Funeral Oration? Thycidides? (I checked -- yes). Let's get real. It's not a video its a text and going into who or what Thycidides was and was up to is far more important than getting misty-eyed on cue about Athens as it is about to be run over by the bus of change. If I had to teach people to get misty-eyed about Pericles we would work at it from all sides. We'd do Pindar (funny he's never on the Western Civ list), we would do Churchill's reverse take (which is far better rhetoric) in his Finest Hour speech.
We would do whatever historians covered the end of Athens as a major power and the resurgence of Persia.

It's true at that rate we would be doing a class in the 5th and 4th and 3rd centuries BC in the Aegean and Asia Minor and the echoes thereof.

And don't get me started on that horrible crank, St. Paul at all. I could easily teach a class in showing what a horrible person he must have been.

spamwarrior
06-25-2013, 07:38 PM
But this kind of thinking is strongly anti-intellectual. It objects to the kinds of questions that have arisen and are now being tackled. He wants questions unasked, and new points of view and subjects unstudied. He seems to want that, not because there's something wrong with the subjects and qeustions, but because they disorient and confuse academics. Isn't dealing with confusing subjects an academic's job?



Completely agree. Any attempt to impose that kind of "coherence" in favor of a less disorienting and confusing thinking tends to be oversimplified and distorted.

In my Western Civ course, a lot of professors tended to pick and choose which texts to study in order to create a picture that was as "uplifting" as possible.

ColoradoGuy
06-25-2013, 07:45 PM
I'm far from the first to notice that the response to post-modernism is far more interesting than post-modernist theories themselves are. Hence Brooks and friends.

Another odd thing is that Brooks presents himself as some sort of authority on these things. The man has a BA in history from the University of Chicago (1983). It's the presumptuousness of his tut-tutting that annoys me. I'm a big believer in liberal arts education: I'm a physician but my BA is a double -- history and religion (1974); I have an MA in history and all the course credits for a history PhD (never did the dissertation). But I would never presume to speak for what the Academy of the humanities is or is not doing correctly.

The saying we use in medicine for this sort of thing is that Brooks knows just enough to be dangerous. And he has such a huge megaphone at the NYT. It gives me a migraine just thinking about it.

The pompous and self-important love what they see as his erudition. This particular column is causing sage nods of approval all over the blogosphere among the heirs of Ward Cleaver.

Maxx
06-25-2013, 07:54 PM
I'm far from the first to notice that the response to post-modernism is far more interesting than post-modernist theories themselves are. Hence Brooks and friends.


I guess responses to post-modernism have a certain comic frozen horror value that's good for a belly laugh -- like that moment in Raising Arizona where the old pick-up truck driver and the Hero can't do anything but scream.

On the other hand modernism is long, long gone, and treating everything that has happened since Hemingway shot himself as if it were a hippee plot to introduce LSD into the water supply is infantile and fantastically self-satisfied for no reason at all.

Medievalist
06-25-2013, 08:00 PM
I'm far from the first to notice that the response to post-modernism is fa
The pompous and self-important love what they see as his erudition. This particular column is causing sage nods of approval all over the blogosphere among the heirs of Ward Cleaver.

I should confess that for the first few paragraphs I thought it was a parody.

spamwarrior
06-25-2013, 08:08 PM
The pompous and self-important love what they see as his erudition. This particular column is causing sage nods of approval all over the blogosphere among the heirs of Ward Cleaver.

I groan because I see various alumni and faculty of my school posting these up and down social media, nodding with approval.

Maxx
06-25-2013, 08:09 PM
Another odd thing is that Brooks presents himself as some sort of authority on these things.

He has that authority that is most in demand: he lets you know it is okay to know next to nothing about most things.

I think that's the really insidious side of the self-satisfied approach to uplifting self-cultivation -- you get to ignore most of human experience in the name of a higher version of the same species -- ie without most of its population.

I'm thinking about what I would have people study if I wanted them to have a worthwhile survey of human experience. For one thing it would be ten times what Brooks has ever deigned to ever admit to having actually even heard of. And that's just a start.

spamwarrior
06-25-2013, 08:21 PM
Any thoughts about Stanley Fish's response to Brooks and Klinkenborg? (What a name!

Here's the article by Verlyn Klinkenborg: The Decline and Fall of the English Major (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/23/opinion/sunday/the-decline-and-fall-of-the-english-major.html)

Here's Stanley Fish's response: A Case for the Humanities Not Made (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/24/a-case-for-the-humanities-not-made/?src=recg)

ColoradoGuy
06-25-2013, 08:25 PM
I should confess that for the first few paragraphs I thought it was a parody.

Me, too -- it could easily pass as a sly parody. If I wrote for the Onion, and I were able to hack into Brooks' account, I would have offered up something like this.

ColoradoGuy
06-25-2013, 09:06 PM
Any thoughts about Stanley Fish's response to Brooks and Klinkenborg? (What a name!

Here's the article by Verlyn Klinkenborg: The Decline and Fall of the English Major (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/23/opinion/sunday/the-decline-and-fall-of-the-english-major.html)

Here's Stanley Fish's response: A Case for the Humanities Not Made (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/24/a-case-for-the-humanities-not-made/?src=recg)

Klinkenborg's piece is mostly more vague puffery, but he makes the good point that writing expository prose is a skill fewer and fewer college students have. He links it to a decline in English majors, which is off-base, I think. The problem is mainly one of secondary education. High school graduates who write poorly are very unlikely to major in English. So teach writing there.

Fish is his usual self, cutting to the chase in the way he skewers all those vague platitudes. I know him peripherally -- friends of friends sort of thing -- and have usually found him feisty in a fun sort of way (e.g. "The unbearable ugliness of Volvos"). Plus, I've always had a soft spot for reader-response theory. I still open Surprised By Sin occasionally.

Bottom line: I think Fish is nearer to the mark than Klinkenborg. And Brooks needs to be widely ridiculed for this column. I'm doing my part for the cause.

TerzaRima
06-25-2013, 10:15 PM
I groan because I see various alumni and faculty of my school posting these up and down social media, nodding with approval.

Me too (sigh). Et tu, Fighting Irish?


Klinkebborg's piece is mostly more vague puffery, but he makes the good point that writing expository prose is a skill fewer and fewer college students have. He links it to a decline in English majors, which is off-base, I think. The problem is mainly one of secondary education. High school graduates who write poorly are very unlikely to major in English. So teach writing there.



There, and do a far better job at teaching the prerequisites of expository writing to elementary and middle schoolers. My (admittedly baseless) suspicion is that students are reaching high school with weak prewriting skills, because grade school forces a choice between emphasis on creativity and correct syntax in the earlier years.

spamwarrior
06-25-2013, 11:03 PM
There, and do a far better job at teaching the prerequisites of expository writing to elementary and middle schoolers. My (admittedly baseless) suspicion is that students are reaching high school with weak prewriting skills, because grade school forces a choice between emphasis on creativity and correct syntax in the earlier years.

I think you might have a point there -- at my school, the composition teachers found themselves having to teach students how to write. Rather than coming in knowing already how to create a good, organized, well-reasoned essay (from high school), they were having to learn from step one how to create one. They came in expecting to be taught how, and these were college freshman educated in the United States public school system. I don't know how it is in other schools, but I wonder if this is a trend.

spamwarrior
06-25-2013, 11:45 PM
Also, here's some statistics:

As More Attend College, Majors Become More Career Focused (http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/25/as-more-attend-college-majors-become-more-career-focused/?smid=tw-fivethirtyeight&seid=auto&_r=2&) (statistics unpacking Klinkenborg's declaration that the English major is declining)

Actually, the Humanities Aren't in Crisis (http://m.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/06/actually-the-humanities-arent-in-crisis/277144/)

ColoradoGuy
06-26-2013, 01:04 AM
Indeed. Your second link shows the graphs I linked to in my opening post, although with fewer details.