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What Good Are the Humanities?

Why they clash with U.S. culture today, and why they matter.

Leigh Wells

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By J. Martin Evans

One of the courses I most enjoy teaching at Stanford is called Tradition and Revolution. Together with Professor Marsh McCall of the Classics Department, I teach it each autumn quarter when it constitutes one of eight or nine options in Stanford’s Introduction to the Humanities program, which all students are required to take in their first year. In it we explore the complex interactions between philosophy, history and literature within three distinct generic traditions: drama, epic and political fiction. Each segment of the course pairs a major classical text with a Renaissance work that imitates and adapts it to answer the needs of a radically different intellectual, historical and aesthetic environment. By means of these juxtapositions we try to illuminate the way in which the relationship between the three major humanistic disciplines changed over time and the accompanying transformations in our understanding of what it means to be human.

Our reading list thus focuses on the literature of classical antiquity and the English Renaissance, and as we go over it on the first day of class I can see many of our students asking themselves: why is the University requiring me to take a course like this? What conceivable relevance can the writings of an ancient Greek philosopher like Plato or a Renaissance English statesman like Sir Thomas More have for a modern American living in the 21st century? Our proper concern, surely, is with the world we live in, and our most worthwhile subjects are the issues—political, social, economic, scientific—that animate that world.

Given their traditional character, it is not hard to understand why the humanities have always tended to go against the grain in a society like ours, which rightly prides itself on its progressive, forward-looking nature,
a society which from its very beginnings has been associated with exploration and invention. In California, the home of one of the most vigorous centers of technical innovation anywhere, the role of the humanities is even more counter to the prevailing culture. For here, in the middle of an electronic revolution, we humanists are saying to our students: look back for a moment, too; listen to the past. Look out for a moment as well; listen to other cultures. Think not only about where we are going but how we got to be where we are. Let these humanistic materials we are studying do something to you instead of trying to do something to them.

The humanist’s material is not a mysterious concatenation of natural phenomena or a mass of raw statistical data waiting to be given significance by the ordering mind of the analyst. Our subject matter already has significance and order built into it. It already makes sense. Humanists are the servants of the works they study and teach, not their masters. They don’t expect to do something to their subject; they expect their subject to do something to them.

The obvious question is: what? How do the philosophy, history and literature of other times and other places affect us when we are exposed to them? Granted that they expand our intellectual and emotional vision by liberating us from our cultural parochialism, what purpose is served by such an enlargement of our sensibility? Even though Shakespeare’s Hamlet allows me to apprehend the world through the eyes of a Renaissance English Protestant, and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart allows me to enter into the experience of a contemporary African, what is the value of such knowledge? Why bother to share the consciousness of someone I could never become and would never wish to become?

There are several possible answers, but I shall mention only two. The first argument was vigorously put forward by Ernest L. Boyer and Martin Kaplan in an article entitled “Educating for Survival.” The very survival of our civilization, they claim, depends in large measure on the capacity of its educational system to make us aware of the shared values and experiences that are the cement of any true community. To the extent that the humanities direct our attention to the fundamental human experiences, thoughts and feelings that transcend the social, ethnic and religious differences that divide us, they are strengthening the essential fabric of our society. The point of reading a work like Hamlet is to get beyond those features of the play that distinguish it from our contemporary sensibility. Stripped of his Ptolemaic cosmology, his Lutheran religion, his royalist politics, a 16th-century European prince like Hamlet would appear much the same as we do. The mission of the humanities, Boyer and Kaplan believe, is to reveal to us this universal, immutable, human common denominator.

For a long time I held this view myself, but more recently I have come to the conclusion that there is an alternative or complementary function that the humanities fulfill. Let me quote the English scholar C.S. Lewis’s comments on what he calls “the doctrine of the unchanging human heart.”

“I continue,” he writes, “to admit that if you remove from people the things that make them different, what is left must be the same, and that the Human Heart will certainly appear as Unchanging if you ignore its changes. But I have come to doubt whether the study of this mere lowest common denominator is the best end the student of old poetry can set before himself. . . . Fortunately there is a better way. Instead of stripping the knight of his armor you can try to put his armor on yourself; instead of seeing how the courtier would look without his lace, you can try to see how you would feel with his lace; that is, with his honor, his wit, his royalism, and his gallantries. . . . It is better to study the changes in which the being of the Human Heart largely consists than to amuse ourselves with fictions about its immutability.

“For the truth is that when you have stripped off what the Human Heart actually was in this or that culture, you are left with a miserable abstraction totally unlike the life really lived by any human being. . . . We must therefore turn a deaf ear to scholars who invite us to disregard everything except the permanent and human interest in the works we read. This is like asking us to study Hamlet after the rubbish of the revenge code has been removed, or centipedes when free of their irrelevant legs, or Gothic architecture without the pointed arches. . . . Our plan must be very different—to plunge right into the so-called rubbish, to see the world as if we believed it, and then, while we still hold that position in our imagination, to see what sort of work results.”

In the incredibly complex and diverse society that we call America, this kind of imaginative entrance into the experience of other men and women is especially important and especially rewarding. Enriched as it is by the cultures of Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America, American society depends on the ability of its members to recognize and respect difference, to understand our fellow men and women on their terms as well as on ours.

What in studying the humanities we call the imagination, in the sphere of morality we call compassion, fellow-feeling, understanding. Thus Lewis is able to claim that “in the moral sphere, every act of justice or charity involves putting ourselves in the other person’s place and thus of transcending our own competitive particularity. In coming to understand anything, we are rejecting the facts as they are for us in favor of the facts as they are for someone else. The primary impulse of each is to maintain and aggrandize himself. The secondary impulse is to go out of the self, to correct its provincialism, and heal its loneliness. In love, in virtue, in the pursuit of knowledge, and in the study of literature, history, and philosophy, we are doing this.”

I am constantly urging my students, therefore, not to allow the fact that the authors we are reading often held profoundly different opinions from their own to stand between them and the texts they are studying. For in a sense the more divergent from ours the presuppositions a text rests on, the greater its potential value. The person who sees in all things an image of him or her self, who makes friends only with people who share his or her opinions and predispositions, lives in a tiny world.

Both kinds of knowledge, the objective knowledge of the sciences and the social sciences and the subjective knowledge of the humanities are necessary, I believe, if we are to achieve even an approximate understanding of our fellow human beings. And that, I tell my students, is why Stanford has an IHum requirement.

J. MARTIN EVANS is the William R. Kenan Professor of English. This is an excerpt from a talk given in January at the Hawaii International Conference on Arts and Humanities in Honolulu.

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