Let's hear it for those dead, white, European males
A better defense of the traditional humanities and their connection to the genius of Western Civilization you will never find than in the Wall Street Journal and this scintillating op-ed by Heather McDonald.
McDonald bemoans the destruction of the UCLA English major. Where previously, undergrads would have to take one course studying Chaucer, 2 for Shakespeare, and one on Milton, a "revolt" by junior faculty forced "a mandate that all English majors take a total of three courses in the following four areas: Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Disability and Sexuality Studies; Imperial, Transnational, and Postcolonial Studies; genre studies, interdisciplinary studies, and critical theory; or creative writing."
She points out that UCLA English department was one of the last champions of the traditional humanities, now reduced to a vessel for identity politics. But why are the humanities in crisis?
Compare the humanists' hunger for learning with the resentment of a Columbia University undergraduate, who had been required by the school's core curriculum to study Mozart. She happens to be black, but her views are widely shared, to borrow a phrase, "across gender, sexuality, race and class."
"Why did I have to listen in music humanities to this Mozart?" she groused in a discussion of the curriculum reported by David Denby in "Great Books," his 1997 account of re-enrolling in Columbia's core curriculum. "My problem with the core is that it upholds the premises of white supremacy and racism. It's a racist core. Who is this Mozart, this Haydn, these superior white men? There are no women, no people of color." These are not the idiosyncratic thoughts of one disgruntled student; they represent the dominant ideology in the humanities today.
W.E.B. Du Bois would have been stunned to learn how narrow is the contemporary multiculturalist's self-definition and sphere of interest. Du Bois, living during America's darkest period of hate, nevertheless heartbreakingly affirmed in 1903 his intellectual and spiritual affinity with all of Western civilization: "I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas. . . . I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension."
It is no wonder, then, that we have been hearing of late that the humanities are in crisis. A recent Harvard report from a committee co-chaired by the school's premier postcolonial studies theorist, Homi Bhabha, lamented that 57% of incoming Harvard students who initially declare interest in a humanities major eventually change concentrations. Why may that be? Imagine an intending lit major who is assigned something by Professor Bhabha: "If the problematic 'closure' of textuality questions the totalization of national culture. . . ." How soon before that student concludes that a psychology major is more up his alley?
She reminds us that learning the humanities is also an end unto itself:
It is simply better to have escaped one's narrow, petty self and entered minds far more subtle and vast than one's own than never to have done so. The Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino said that a man lives as many millennia as are embraced by his knowledge of history. One could add: A man lives as many different lives as are embraced by his encounters with literature, music and all the humanities and arts. These forms of expression allow us to see and feel things that we would otherwise never experience-society on a 19th-century Russian feudal estate, for example, or the perfect crystalline brooks and mossy shades of pastoral poetry, or the exquisite languor of a Chopin nocturne.
Ultimately, humanistic study is the loving duty we owe those artists and thinkers whose works so transform us. It keeps them alive, as well as us, as Petrarch and Poggio Bracciolini understood. And as politics grow ever more unmoored from reality, humanist wisdom provides us with some consolation: There is no greater lesson from the past than the intractability of human folly.
The Visigoths are trashing our past, wreaking havoc with the very foundations of our civilization. Once gone, they can never be recovered. Will we rediscover them before it's too late?
It's very doubtul with the current crew in charge of our Humanities Departments.