Humanities program is virtuous but flawed

University administrators and academic leadership ought not to be too sanguine about the “Open Letter” and the Daily’s March 13 editorial to save the beleaguered humanities program. The students’ plea is an urgent and necessary call for the restoration of the human dimension in higher education. Their meritorious effort is, however, critically flawed because it links humanities almost solely to Western culture.
How has the human dimension come to occupy an ever-smaller place in higher education? Early universities were founded, quite explicitly, on a theocentric view of the university that gave high place to humans made in God’s image.
Education was a primary means to foster the growth of humans so that they could promote human flourishing in a world whose grand purpose was defined by transcendence. It was precisely this vision that animated the founders of America’s oldest and greatest universities.
And then came the Enlightenment. The human intellect had been unleashed in the wake of the humanist Renaissance and the more God-focused Reformation. Most of the founders of the Royal Society in London, Europe’s first major scientific association, were Puritans who gloried in a God who made the world so that it could be discovered through reason in service to God’s revelation. Whether as heirs to the Renaissance or as heirs to the reformed traditions, founders of the Enlightenment declared divine revelation passÇ. Unaided reason seemed quite adequate for the job. Thus, a natural universe understood rationally and scientifically became the raison d’àtre of higher education by the late 1800s.
George Marsden’s classic, “The Soul of the American University,” tells the story of how all this happened, including Protestant complicity in its own downfall, in the American higher educational context.
Over time, having been stripped of its linkage to divine revelation, reason led to reductionism. Darwin and others showed that we humans are no more than matter developed over time and space. We are our genes, and nothing more.
Humanness, the sense of being fully engaged in our “psychological, existential, ethical, esthetic and metaphysical” dimensions, declined as technology progressed.
And so, here we are at the beginning of the 21st century, in search of humanness in higher education. We have searched and we have discovered. We have critiqued and now we see many things more clearly. We look for solutions and create technologies. We have become, including our professors, “exiles from Eden,” to use Mark Schwehn’s poignant expression. We struggle to create a space for the human, and the plea from the humanities students is an illustration of this.
The critical weakness in the humanities proposal is its explicit linkage to the Western cultural heritage. Not only is the proposal offensive to the large majority that are non-Western, but it flies in the face of substantial evidence that other cultures have reservoirs from which to water the human quest. It is not uncommon, for example, to meet Americans who, having spent time in Africa, return to America glowing with the sense that “I found life and community.”
While it is very true that some of the oldest Western writers mined much richer traditions, the modern Western cultural heritage has been conflated with a sterile rationalism noted for its soullessness.
Multiculturalists and postmodernists of many stripes have jumped on this and are driving reason, handmaiden to Western cultural hegemony, out of academia in favor of subjective truths. “Modes of discourse and social and political issues” have ascended the postmodern academic ladder, but not the vision for the human person.
So, where are we today at the University of Minnesota? Bureaucracy abounds, but not the time to reflect on and to practice what it means to be human. Our modern savior, electronic technology, seems less a willing servant than we expected — witness the PeopleSoft fiasco. Our best efforts at community building, begun under former University President Nils Hasselmo, and campus beautification under University President Mark Yudof are worthy and wonderful, but are they merely window-dressing over an empty campus soul? We genuinely struggle to welcome people of many cultures, and yet cultural alienation persists. To those from non-Western societies, the Western heritage seems to offer freedom but not community.
Yes, we owe our friends in the humanities program our support, but with an honest recognition that the problem is larger than just their program: If scientific naturalism has reduced us to our biochemistry, and postmodernists have rightly exposed our Western idolatry, whence the human?
This begs a larger question: Is there another source for human beliefs and values, for defining our place in the schema of society and universe? Is there a larger story than the Western heritage, a grander tableau from which we may discover the timeless, universal truths that inform our individual and group stories? The daring will scratch about, leaving no stone unturned, in quest of something or someone whose exquisitely human vision transcends both our biochemistry and our cultures.
Bob Osburn is the director of the MacLaurin Institute, a Christian study center near the University. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]