Sunday, January 12, 2020

Douthat on Truth in the Humanities

1/12/2020--It's like a breath of fresh air. Ross Douthat wrote a column in today's New York Times about what the Humanities Department professors say about themselves. It's not an attack but feels like one.

Douthat was reading Endgame in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Douthat starts with Simon During, who likens the decline of the Humanities to the decline in Christianity.

During’s essay is very shrewd, and anyone who has considered secularization in a religious context will recognize truths in the parallels it draws. But at the same time they will also recognize the genre to which it belongs: a statement of regretful unbelief that tries to preserve faith in a more attenuated form (maybe “our canon does not bear any absolute truth and beauty,” but we don’t want to live with an “empty heritage” or “disown and waste the pasts that have formed us”) and to make it useful to some other cause, like the wider left-wing struggle against neoliberalism.

And if there’s any lesson that the decline of Christianity holds for the painful death of the English department, it’s that if you aspire to keep your faith alive even in a reduced, non-hegemonic form, you need more than attenuated belief and socially-useful applications.

But what could that "more" be?

A thousand different forces are killing student interest in the humanities and cultural interest in high culture, and both preservation and recovery depend on more than just a belief in truth and beauty, a belief that “the best that has been thought and said” is not an empty phrase. But they depend at least on that belief, at least on the ideas that certain books and arts and forms are superior, transcendent, at least on the belief that students should learn to value these texts and forms before attempting their critical dissection.

It's simply that some things are better--contain more wisdom about the human condition--than other things.

The Humanities must offer judgment about what is worthwhile, says Michael Clune. No, say G. Gabrelle Starr and Kevin Dettmar--we can offer only approaches to knowledge. But no other discipline promises only an approach; they offer knowledge.

The irony says Douthat is that the age of white male hegemony is over. Now it is possible to assemble a worldwide canon. But there must be faith in the thing itself.

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