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Friday, May 26, 2017

A Plan to Revive the Secular Humanities

The Humanities are in full collapse. Nobody wants to study “Humanities” any more, and for good reason: they are not taught. Instead, left-wing politics is taught under their guise.

What has happened, and how can we fix it?

The traditional system, peer review, cannot work any longer. It relies upon the field being essentially sound, and only preserving whatever already is. If the system is already corrupted, it only preserves the corruption. How do you clean house and start again?

One approach often suggested is to return to the idea of a Western Canon, a fixed body of knowledge, the “Great Books.”

This seems attractive, but there are two problems.

First, it is artificially limiting, and in a way that is insupportable. We ought not to be studying only the “Western” canon. Any honest search for truth and wisdom must also include the great books of the East: the Confucian classics, the Upanishads, the Tao Te Ching, the Analects, Ibn Khaldun, and so forth.

Okay; not so hard to fix that, on the face of it.

But there is a second problem. It is not just the subject matter that is depraved. It would be perfectly easy to teach a course, or write a research paper, on “the problem of patriarchy in the Old Testament,” or “The homoeroticism of the Arjuna-Krishna relationship in the Bhagavad Gita.”

Arjuna meets Krishna

This is the deeper problem: not the current subject matter of the Humanities, but the interpretive lens.

The hard sciences are all about the interpretive method. It is simple, straightforward, and mechanical: experiment and observation.

By comparison, the Humanities are all at sea, and that is our problem. You have a play by Shakespeare: what do you do with it? How do you, as a scholar, add any value to what Shakespeare has already done?

What, in other words, is the purpose of the Humanities? Very well; read Aristotle. But what do you need a professor for?

This used to be clear: the interpretive lens was theology. Or rather, since theology itself has oftgen become free-form, it was the magisterium, the deposit of faith. One was adding to the mountain of known truth. How did Shakespeare’s Portia conform to or violate the moral law? How did she illuminate it?

Portia: Millais

This is why universities—and schools at lower levels as well—were originally religiously based. That anchor of faith was necessary to the enterprise. Theology was the queen of the sciences.

What we have now is an ark without a rudder. This is actually a problem for the hard sciences as well; but less obviously. For the Humanities, the problem is almost immediate.

The obvious attempt to compensate for this was scientism: the elevation of the techniques of science and its current conclusions to the status of theology.

This was disastrous.

Science cannot touch the Humanities. Science can deal only with what is observable by the senses, the physical, and, by definition, metaphysics is beyond what it can see. So this approach required the invention of a series of pseudo-sciences, ultimately nonsensical, but immediately embraced and pressed into academic service because they offered the Humanities and Humanities scholars an interpretive lens, a mechanical method, which would allow them to churn out papers and courses. Marxism was the original one, and still widely popular: you could do a Marxist or class interpretation of Shakespeare, or Plato, or anything. Freudianism is another popular one. Then there is feminism, behaviourism, structuralism, deconstruction, post-colonialism, and on and on. A new one pops up every few years. All the better, because the low fruit gets picked by that time. The definitive Freudian interpretation of Hamlet has already been written; to write it again, you would have to do better. But now there is an opportunity to do the feminist interpretation.

All of them start out as nonsense in any scientific or philosophical terms, and as a result anything they produce is nonsense. GIGO. Their sole advantage is that they are easy to do.

The obvious solution is to re-establish the Humanities on a religious basis. And this has started to happen, in the movement to re-establish the Christian college. Examples are Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy in Barry’s Bay, Redeemer College in Ancaster, and Trinity Western University in BC.

There is still perhaps a bit of a problem with that. It is hard to fit in non-Western materials, because they begin with such different assumptions. And, of course, there is an issue for many with public funding of denominational institutions.

Failing that, at a minimum, public universities’ Humanities departments might set the following rule: no interpretive method may be legitimately applied to a work if the interpretive method is newer than the work itself.

This principle alone would kill much of the faddish nonsense.

It would actually be reasonable to offer a Marxist interpretation of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or Malraux’s Man’s Fate. Here, after all, Marx might well have been an influence, and pointing this out could help in understanding the work.

It would, on the other hand, not be reasonable or academically legitimate to offer a feminist interpretation of either, Malraux or Steinbeck, since modern feminism came later, and so cannot have been an influence.

Without this rule, lazy scholars can spend their time learning feminism instead of engaging Malraux.

With it, the work must be engaged with on its own terms, and some awareness of the history of ideas must be displayed and conveyed.

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