University neglects Humanities Program

In his letter to the Daily of Thursday, March 16, “Humanities flourish at U,” Professor Brewer tells us the humanities are alive and well at the University of Minnesota. The word “humanities” is used here to refer to academic disciplines other than the sciences. While many of the humanities disciplines indeed flourish at the University, the Humanities Program is on the verge of extinction. But, as far as Professor Brewer is concerned, the extinction of the Humanities Program would be no great loss to the University. Why?
It is important to note the Humanities Institute, directed by Professor Brewer, is in part the brainchild of cultural studies. By including the term “humanities” in its title, the Institute seems to have put itself in a position — which was, no doubt, the original intention — to claim the authority to define what humanities is, what it should be and, more importantly, what it should not be. Professor Brewer availed himself of this would-be authority by stating, “European culture canonized the notion of ‘Western Civilization’ and institutionalized it in university humanities programs.” Those of us aware of the currently reigning orthodoxies, such as postmodernism and related trends in academia, know that “the canon” and “to canonize” are abusive labels from their arsenal of jargon.
Professor Brewer’s letter used a rhetorical tactic that has been employed successfully on many occasions when the reigning orthodoxies have acted to exclude alternative approaches to humanistic subject matter. This rhetorical ploy is quite simple: Let us define our practice as “cutting edge” and all alternative practices as dinosaurs, etc. Let us define them out of existence by pronouncing them out of date.
I would like to remind those who employ that tactic, without accusing them of Nazism or Stalinism, that Nazism was “cutting edge” and democracy a dinosaur in Germany in the late 1930s; Stalinism was also “the latest” and “bourgeois democratic ideology” out of date in the Soviet Union in the same period. This is not to say practicing postmodern or related methodologies is wrong; it is rather to point out that being “cutting edge” cannot, by itself, serve as validation of a practice, let alone as a basis for condemning alternative methodologies.
Professor Brewer did present us with something that looked like an argument in favor of the exclusive validity of the methodology he represents. He said, “What we know now, for example, is ‘Western civilization’ was never exclusively Western, but rather a set of complex negotiations within or between many cultures.” This insight was presented as the latest discovery by the practitioners of the “new” humanities. Then came the punch line: Humanities programs represent the institutionalization of a “canonized” notion of Western civilization. What this claim seems to mean is humanities programs are based on the assumption, contrary to “what we know now,” that Western civilization is “exclusively Western” (whatever that means).
Professor Brewer concluded with the rousing crescendo, “The notion of the humanities that belongs to contemporary, multicultural, global society looks quite different. In the contemporary university, the teaching of the humanities looks different as well.” Ergo, humanities programs have been invalidated. This semblance of an argument is a tissue of inaccuracies and false claims.
(1) The knowledge that cultures interact, influence and borrow from each other, far from being a recent discovery of practitioners of “the new humanities,” is as old as the discipline of history.
(2) Interdisciplinary courses on Western civilization, offered in the Humanities Program at the University and elsewhere, have never been based on the assumption that Western civilization was internally monolithic or insular in relation to other cultures. On the contrary, recognition of internal complexity and cultural interaction has always been a salient feature of humanities courses. To cite one example, in a course I am currently teaching, I devote a portion of the semester to the influence of Oriental traditions on the West.
(3) Professor Brewer’s implication that the Humanities Program is parochial in relation to “contemporary, multicultural, global societies” is based on ignorance. When the Humanities Department flourished in the ’70s and ’80s, it offered introductory and upper-level courses on the cultural heritages of India and China. The present humanities curriculum, after having been gutted by the transfer of faculty members and resources to cultural studies, still includes a course on Hindu culture. In a restored Humanities Department, I will insist we reinstate the courses on India and China.
Why does the Humanities Department deserve to be restored? In humanities courses, students gain an integral understanding of the development of Western civilization. Original works are chosen for their richness, profundity and continuing relevance. Economic, social and political themes are emphasized when relevant, as in Plato’s “Republic,” Marx’s “Communist Manifesto,” and Mill’s “Essay on Liberty.”
Other works studied focus on a variety of issues and values — psychological, existential, ethical, aesthetic and metaphysical — which are examined in their own right, independent of the social origin of the authors and their real or imagined social and political significance. Issues concerning our common humanity, as well as the unique individuality of each of us, are given equal treatment with issues of group identities and differences. Humanities courses show how ideas, values and styles cut across the lines of various disciplines, media and genres. Reading, understanding, appreciation and critical evaluation are nurtured, while intensive exposure to and exploration of great works contribute to the development of the student’s whole person.
A course of study of such richness and depth deserves to be offered again as a major in the stable context of a departmental structure, both as a significant option of a liberal arts education for students and an opportunity for faculty members who wish to teach and pursue research in a congenial Humanities Department.
Students who agree the Humanities Department should be restored should indicate their endorsement by e-mailing: “I endorse the petition to restore the Humanities Department and its major,” and include their name, major and class rank, to one of the following e-mail addresses: [email protected] or [email protected]
George Kliger is the coordinator of the Humanities Program. Send comments to [email protected]