For nearly 50 years the “humanities,” those courses in higher education that focus on the liberal arts, have been in crisis. This important front in the culture wars recently saw a brief skirmish touched off by a New Yorker article about the last days of the English major. But such analyses are in fact obituaries. The “woke” purveyors of “boots are better than Shakespeare” philistinism have finished their march through the institutions and now occupy our universities. Liberal education, the passing on of the “best that is known and thought,” survives only in a few scattered outposts.
Most of the assaults have come from the political and cultural Left and its more recent guise in the “woke” tribunes who have rebranded the old multicultural, identity victim-politics founded on the Leninist principle, “who whom”–– who is the oppressor, who is the oppressed. We all know the answer: Western civilization and all its works, including its fine arts and “great books,” which are mere “epiphenomena,” as the Marxiste village explainers put it, of the hegemonic ideologies, values, “truths,” “facts,” and “narratives,” all the “hidden persuaders” who exploit the “false consciousness” of the masses.
Onto this dubious and question-begging explanation for the success of capitalism and liberal democracies, Cultural Marxism grafted “identity politics,” the reduction of people’s complex, undetermined humanity, to the superficial characteristics of color and “race,” and to “culture,” one that, particularly in the case of Americans, is fabricated from fake history or crude stereotypes. As French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut writes,
“Like the racists before them, contemporary fanatics of cultural identity confine individuals to their group of origin. Like them, they carry differences to the absolute extreme, and in the name of the multiplicity of specific causes destroy any possibility of a natural or cultural community among peoples.”
It follows, then, that the cultural artifacts of one ethnicity are incompatible with those of another. Standards of excellence are inherently racist and oppressive, for they invidiously exclude those of the marginalized “other,” whose history of racist, sexist, and xenophobic oppression and exclusion is thus erased.
A particularly silly, but illuminating, expression of this belief appears in Martha Nussbaum’s 1997 book Cultivating Humanity: “For a black student being asked to study the great books” in the days before multiculturalism broke the canon of great books, “was not like being asked to do so for a white student. For the former, it was like going to a debutante party in whiteface and knowing that one wasn’t on the invitation list.”
So much for black intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois, who called reading the great books of Western Civilization “cross[ing] the color line.” So much for poor whites or immigrants for whom the great books are an undiscovered county they are the first in their families to explore. Now the liberal arts, the body of achievement in literature and the fine arts, comprises mere tribal badges of hegemony, just as the slavocrats and segregationists believed. Everyone, rich or poor, has to wear the same uniform despite their individual hearts and minds.
So much, too, for our country’s foundational principle of unalienable rights inherent in all human beings, which now is discarded because of the failure of earlier peoples to honor that principle. And that stain is passed on to their descendants, just as anti-Semites justified their bigotry by calling Jews “deicides” or “Christ-killers.”
The historical malfeasance of this Balkanization of culture is particularly egregious, given that over a century ago the case for the liberating power of the liberal arts was made by Matthew Arnold, and more recently strengthened by Allan Bloom. The value of studying literature and the arts is their power to inculcate critical consciousness, the awareness of a larger world of meaning and greater possibilities, one accessible to all of us, regardless of our tribe, sex, or sect, through great works of the imagination.
This faculty Arnold called “the free play of the mind on all subjects,” which fosters the “instinct prompting [the mind] to know the best that is known and thought in the world, irrespective of practice, politics, and everything of the kind; and to value knowledge and thought as they approach this best, without the intrusion of any other consideration whatever.” The goal is the ability to turn “a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically.”
What we see today, with our universities functioning as an incubator of illiberal “woke” identity politics, is exactly the opposite: the triumph of “stock notions and habits” that our self-proclaimed intelligentsia “follow stanchly but mechanically,” and the adherence to which is enforced through censorship and collective shaming. The result is the diminishment of freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.
A more recent expression of the irreplaceable value of the humanities is Alan Bloom’s 1987 The Closing of the American Mind. What Bloom emphasizes is the importance of the “free play of the mind” to our Constitutional order: “By liberal education I mean education for freedom, which consists primarily in the awareness of the most important alternatives.” This does not mean a slavish subjection to tradition, but rather training students to seek the answers to the perennial questions of human value and human identity, and to resist the dominant “notions and habits” of one’s own society and culture: “A liberal education means precisely helping students to pose this question [what is a human] to themselves, to become aware that the answer is neither obvious nor simply unavailable, and that there is no serious life in which this question is not available.”
Moreover, students should be trained “to resist the easy and preferred answers, not because he is obstinate but because he knows others worthy of consideration.” This discredits the caricature of blinkered conservatives frightened of new or strange ideas, or too xenophobic and ethnocentric to accept foreign literature or arts. This view is historically false. No civilization has been as curious about the “other,” or been influenced by his culture as much as the West has.
True to that spirit, Bloom writes, “The true canon aggregates around the most urgent questions we face. That is the only ground for the study of books. Idle cultural reports, Eastern or Western, cannot truly concern us except as a hobby.” Good, carefully argued or imaginatively presented ideas are valuable no matter where they come from, and stand and fall on their worth alone. Thus our canon of “great books” are important because they transcend their time and explore questions about human nature and behavior necessary for “ordered liberty,” something quite different from the freedom to do as one pleases.
As for the West’s toxic ethnocentrism, Bloom points out, historically most of the world’s cultures have been, and many remain ethnocentric and intolerant of the stranger. So too with our “woke” tribes today. Where do we see the hatred of the “other,” if not among the “woke” cadres and commissars demonizing all “whites” with “systemic racism”? ? And what’s more illiberal and divisive than the category “people of color,” a broad, elastic term that deems Caucasians like Arabs and many Latinos as some sort of racial minority “of color”? And how come Asians, an ethnicity that has known prejudice and bigotry in America, are now treated like the enemy because they succeed and achieve on their own merits instead of the patronage of the state?
Finally, what force is there in the university to stand against the imprisoning of people in their ethnic cages, to speak up for the true diversity of individual minds and imaginations, and the enrichment of life and thought that follows the liberation from identity-politics straitjackets–– the freedom to learn and know the great variety that is the wonder of humanity?
The champions of unalienable rights and the value of every individual heart and mind are few in higher education. For all the “woke” commissars’ hectoring us about “diversity,” a dreary, antihuman orthodoxy now prevails, and reeducation for servitude has replaced liberal education for freedom.