The Plight of the Humanities

Jacques Barzun remarks that the plight of the humanities (or liberal arts) exists not because of a hostile takeover by science, but because the humanities abandoned their birthright by mimicking science:

Then begins also the sad story of the humanities, the endemic “plight of the liberal arts.” In earlier days they had lived on excellent terms with science—what there was of it, usually a professor of physics and astronomy and one of chemistry or “natural history.” Those sciences had nothing illiberal about them; all types of knowledge were born equal. But in the 1880s and 1890s the increasing squadron of specialized sciences invaded the academy banners flying and claiming a monopoly of ceritified knoweldge. It would be wrong to suppose that the scientists wne out of their way to maim or kill the humanists. The latter’s wounds were self-inflicted. In the hope of rivaling science, of becoming sciences, the humanities gave up their birthright. By teaching college students the methods of minute scholarship, they denatured the contents and obscured the virtues of liberal studies.

“Research” was the deceptive word that made humanists devote their efforts exclusively to digging out facts about their subject without ever getting back into it. Nicholas Murray Butler, another university builder of the period… used to relate a telling example. When he was an undergraduate taking a course in the Greek dramatists, the professor opened his first lecture on Euripides by saying: “This is the most interesting play of our author: it contains nearly every irregularity in Greek grammar.” It is this fallacy of misplaced significance that continues to deprive the humanities in college of their attractiveness and their practical value. The curriculum may have a large offering of “liberal arts courses,” but they are worthless as education if they are not taught humanistically. But again, the science faculty is not responsible for the folly of their colleagues across campus. The humanist’s fear and envy of science in the 1890s was groundless. Huxley had truthfully pointed out that science appealed to the young mind and developed it for all intellectual purposes, because it was observation and organized common sense—nothing their to frighten or repel the liberal arts major. Science has become something other than common sense, but that is another story. (From Dawn to Decadence, 606-07)

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Published in: on December 19, 2010 at 3:17 pm  Leave a Comment  
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