Life would be no better than candlelight
tinsel and daylight rubbish if our spirits were
not touched by what has been, to issues of
longing and constancy.
—George Eliot, Middlemarch
If asked to identify important topics for a new journal on national affairs, few of us would think first — if at all — of the humanities and their condition in American life today. The sorry state of elementary and secondary education would surely make the list, as might the need to improve scientific literacy and technological competence, so that, as we are often told, America may remain “competitive” in the globalized economy and high-tech world of tomorrow. Attention might be invited also to political correctness in college classrooms or campus restrictions on free speech. But the larger and more important educational issue of what college students should be learning and why — and especially in the humanities — is a subject below the radar for nearly everyone.
It was not always thus. Fifty years ago, when Europeans and Americans still distinguished high culture from popular culture, and when classical learning was still highly esteemed in colleges and universities, C. P. Snow delivered his famous Rede Lecture at Cambridge University, “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.” Snow did more than warn of the growing split between the old culture of the humanities and the rising culture of science. He took Britain’s literary aristocracy to task for its dangerous dismissal of scientific and technological progress, which Snow believed offered the solutions to the world’s deepest problems. In a vitriolic response to Snow, the literary critic F. R. Leavis defended the primacy of the humanities for a civilizing education, insisting that science must not be allowed to operate outside of the moral norms that a first-rate humanistic education alone could provide. The Snow-Leavis debate spread also to this side of the Atlantic, triggering for a time serious and searching discussions regarding the aims of higher education and the importance of the humanities.
Such discussions have, alas, largely disappeared not only from public discourse but even within the academy. Most professors in nearly all of our leading universities prefer to leave and be left alone, justifying their self-serving indifference to the goals and requirements of a liberal education by proclaiming for their students the American trumping value of choice. For themselves, they trumpet the maxim of Chairman Mao: “Let a thousand flowers bloom.” In contrast to 50 years ago, few licensed humanists today embrace any view of the humanities that could in fact justify making them the centerpiece of a college curriculum. This abdication is especially regrettable because it comes precisely at a time in which, thanks largely to the successes of Snow’s beloved scientific and technological revolutions, the meaning and future of our humanity cry out for serious and thoughtful attention. (…)