Urbanities

Heather Mac Donald
The Humanities and Us
Don’t listen to today’s narcissistic academics—the West’s cultural inheritance is indispensable.
Winter 2014

In 2011, the University of California at Los Angeles decimated its English major. Such a development may seem insignificant, compared with, say, the federal takeover of health care. It is not. What happened at UCLA is part of a momentous shift in our culture that bears on our relationship to the past—and to civilization itself.

Until 2011, students majoring in English at UCLA had to take one course in Chaucer, two in Shakespeare, and one in Milton—the cornerstones of English literature. Following a revolt of the junior faculty, however, during which it was announced that Shakespeare was part of the “Empire,” UCLA junked these individual author requirements and replaced them with a mandate that all English majors take a total of three courses in the following four areas: Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Disability, and Sexuality Studies; Imperial, Transnational, and Postcolonial Studies; genre studies, interdisciplinary studies, and critical theory; or creative writing. In other words, the UCLA faculty was now officially indifferent as to whether an English major had ever read a word of Chaucer, Milton, or Shakespeare, but was determined to expose students, according to the course catalog, to “alternative rubrics of gender, sexuality, race, and class.”

Such defenestrations have happened elsewhere, of course, and long before 2011. But the UCLA coup was particularly significant because the school’s English department was one of the last champions of the historically informed study of great literature, uncorrupted by an ideological overlay. Precisely for that reason, it was the most popular English major in the country, enrolling a whopping 1,400 undergraduates.

Let’s compare what the UCLA student has lost and what he has gained. Here’s Oberon addressing Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Once I sat upon a promontory
And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath
That the rude sea grew civil at her song
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres
To hear the seamaid’s music

To which UCLA’s junior English faculty respond: Ho-hum. Here’s the description of a University of California postcolonial studies research grant: The “theoretical, temporal, and spatial intersections of postcoloniality and postsocialism will arrive at a novel approach to race, gender, and sexuality in present-day geopolitics.” To which UCLA’s junior English faculty respond: That’s more like it!

Other readers and listeners have not been so obtuse in their literary judgments. Consider the response of a nineteenth-century Frenchman exposed to Shakespeare for the first time. In early 1827, a troupe of British actors arrived in Paris to perform six Shakespeare plays. The young composer Hector Berlioz was in the audience at the Théâtre de l’Odéon and, like most spectators, read along with the English language performances in a French prose translation. Berlioz later recalled the moment in his Mémoires:

Shakespeare, coming upon me unawares, struck me like a thunderbolt. The lightning flash of that sublime discovery opened before me at a stroke the whole heaven of art, illuminating it to its remotest depths. . . .

But the shock was too strong, and it was long before I recovered from it. . . . As I came out of Hamlet, shaken to the depths by the experience, I vowed not to expose myself a second time to the flame of Shakespeare’s genius.

This resolution proved fleeting:

Next day the playbills announced Romeo and Juliet.

After Denmark’s somber clouds and icy winds, to be exposed to the fiery sun and balmy nights of Italy, to witness the drama of that passion swift as thought, burning as lava, radiantly pure as an angel’s glance, . . . was more than I could bear. By the third act, scarcely able to breathe—it was as though an iron hand had gripped me by the heart—I knew that I was lost.

Berlioz’s reaction was typical. Alexandre Dumas, also in the audience, wrote that Shakespeare arrived in France with the “freshness of Adam’s first sight of Eden.” Fellow attendees Eugène Delacroix, Victor Hugo, and Théophile Gautier, along with Berlioz and Dumas, would create works inspired by those seminal evenings. The Bard’s electrifying combination of profound human insight and linguistic glory would continue catapulting across national borders to influence poets, painters, and composers the world over, as no other writer has done.

Yet the UCLA English department—like so many others—is more concerned that its students encounter race, gender, and disability studies than that they plunge headlong into the overflowing riches of actual English literature—whether Milton, Wordsworth, Thackeray, George Eliot, or dozens of other great artists closer to our own day. How is this possible? The UCLA coup represents the characteristic academic traits of our time: narcissism, an obsession with victimhood, and a relentless determination to reduce the stunning complexity of the past to the shallow categories of identity and class politics. Sitting atop an entire civilization of aesthetic wonders, the contemporary academic wants only to study oppression, preferably his own, defined reductively according to gonads and melanin. Course catalogs today babble monotonously of group identity. UCLA’s undergraduates can take courses in Women of Color in the U.S.; Women and Gender in the Caribbean; Chicana Feminism; Studies in Queer Literatures and Cultures; and Feminist and Queer Theory.

Today’s professoriate claims to be interested in “difference,” or, to use an even more up-to-date term, “alterity.” But this is a fraud. The contemporary academic seeks only to confirm his own worldview and the political imperatives of the moment in whatever he studies. The 2014 Modern Language Association conference, for example, the annual gathering of America’s literature (not social work) faculty, will address “embodiment, poverty, climate, activism, reparation, and the condition of being unequally governed . . . to expose key sites of vulnerability and assess possibilities for change.”

It was not always so. The humanist tradition was founded not on narcissism but on the all-consuming desire to engage with the genius and radical difference of the past. The fourteenth-century Florentine poet Francesco Petrarch triggered the explosion of knowledge known today as Renaissance humanism with his discovery of Livy’s monumental history of Rome and the letters of Cicero, the Roman statesman whose orations, with their crystalline Latin style, would inspire such philosophers of republicanism as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Fourteenth-century Florentine poet Petrarch so loved the classical authors that he imagined conversations with them.
Private Collection/Ken Welsh/The Bridgeman Art Library
Fourteenth-century Florentine poet Petrarch so loved the classical authors that he imagined conversations with them.

But Petrarch didn’t want just to read the ancients; he wanted to converse with them as well. So he penned heartfelt letters in Latin to Virgil, Seneca, Horace, and Homer, among others, informing them of the fate of their writings and of Rome itself. After rebuking Cicero for the vindictiveness revealed in his letters, Petrarch repented and wrote him again: “I fear that my last letter has offended you. . . . But I feel I know you as intimately as if I had always lived with you.”

Petrarch was hardly the only Renaissance scholar to feel so immediate a bond with the classical authors. In 1416, the Florentine clerk Poggio Bracciolini discovered the most important Roman treatise on rhetoric moldering in a monastery library outside Constance, a find of such value that a companion exclaimed: “Oh wondrous treasure, oh unexpected joy!” Bracciolini thought of himself as rescuing a still-living being. The treatise’s author, Quintillian, would have “perished shortly if we hadn’t brought him aid in the nick of time,” Bracciolini wrote to a friend in Verona. “There is not the slightest doubt that that man, so brilliant, genteel, tasteful, refined, and pleasant, could not longer have endured the squalor of that place and the cruelty of those jailors.”

This burning drive to recover a lost culture propelled the Renaissance humanists into remote castles and monasteries across Europe to search for long-forgotten manuscripts. Despite their rapport with their Greek and Roman ancestors, they were no historical naïfs. The humanists were well aware, unlike their medieval predecessors, of the chasm between their present and the classical past, as exemplified most painfully in the fallen state of medieval Latin. It was precisely to overcome the effects of time on historical sources that they developed the seminal methods of modern scholarship.

The knowledge that many ancient texts were forever lost filled these scholars with despair. Nevertheless, they exulted in their growing repossession of classical learning, for which they felt, in Emerson’s words, a canine appetite. In François Rabelais’s exuberant Gargantua stories from the 1530s, the giant Gargantua sends off his son to study in Paris, joyfully conjuring up the languages—Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Chaldean, and Arabic—that he expects him to master, as well as the vast range of history, law, natural history, and philosophy. “In short,” he concludes, “let me find you a perfect abyss of knowledge.”

Rabelais's Gargantua (overlooking Paris) exulted in the possession of classical learning.
The Granger Collection, NYC
Rabelais’s Gargantua (overlooking Paris) exulted in the possession of classical learning.

This constant, sophisticated dialogue between past and present would become a defining feature of Western civilization, prompting the evolution of such radical ideas as constitutional government and giving birth to arts and architecture of polyphonic complexity. And it became the primary mission of the universities to transmit knowledge of the past, as well as—eventually—to serve as seedbeds for new knowledge.

Compare the humanists’ hunger for learning with the resentment of a Columbia University undergraduate who had been required by the school’s freshman core curriculum to study Mozart. She happens to be black, but her views are widely shared, to borrow a phrase, “across gender, sexuality, race, and class.”

“Why did I have to listen in music humanities to this Mozart?” she groused in a discussion of the curriculum reported by David Denby in his book on Columbia’s core. “My problem with the core is that it upholds the premises of white supremacy and racism. It’s a racist core. Who is this Mozart, this Haydn, these superior white men? There are no women, no people of color.” These are not the idiosyncratic thoughts of one disgruntled student; they represent the dominant ideology in the humanities today. Columbia not only failed to disabuse the student of such parochialism; it is also all but certain that some of its faculty strengthened her in her close-mindedness, despite the school’s admirable commitment to its beleaguered core.

Of course, the absurd game of reducing all expression to gender or race politics is particularly ludicrous when it comes to music—but the charge of Eurocentrism is even more preposterously leveled against Mozart, who makes a Muslim pasha the only truly noble character in his opera The Abduction from the Seraglio, and whose Sarastro in The Magic Flute appeals to a universal humanity.

W. E. B. Du Bois would have been stunned to learn how narrow is the contemporary multiculturalist’s self-definition and sphere of interest. Du Bois, living during America’s darkest period of hate, nevertheless heartbreakingly affirmed in 1903 his intellectual and spiritual affinity with all of Western civilization: “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas. . . . I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.”

This Petrarchan intimacy with the past is precisely what is missing from the humanities today, and its antithesis—shallow narcissism—has now leaped out of the campus and into the arts world at large. Directors in Europe and the U.S. are dragooning poor defenseless operas to serve as mouthpieces for their own hobbyhorses. These egotistical stage directors wrench centuries-old works into the present and force them to ape the political and sexual obsessions of today’s cultural elite. Audiences can expect to see lots of nudity and kinky sex on stage, as well as cell phones, Big Macs, and snide put-downs of American capitalism. Mozart’s aristocratic seducer, Don Giovanni, is infallibly a charmless, drug-addicted lout wallowing in the detritus of consumer culture and surrounded by sluts, psychopaths, and slobs (see “The Abduction of Opera,” Summer 2007).

The official excuse for such mutilation is that a work can only be “relevant” to a modern audience if it is tricked out in modern garb and forced to speak, however incoherently, of modern concerns. As the director of the Frankfurt opera declared, no one should care what Handel wanted in his operas; what matters is “what interests us . . . what we want.”

Actually, the only thing that matters is what Handel, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky wanted. It is their artistic genius that allows us to enter worlds radically different from our own and expand our understanding of what it is to be human. The revisionist director, like the contemporary academic, detests any values, such as nobility, grandeur, or sexual decorum, that differ from his own, and will shamelessly rewrite an opera’s plot to eliminate them. But in an era of twerking and drunken hookups, there is much to be gained by experiencing, if only for a few hours, a courtly ethic where desire can be expressed by the slightest inclination of a hand or an almost imperceptible darkening of the voice.

As for the visual arts, artists learned their craft for centuries by lovingly studying and copying the masters. No more. Today’s would-be artist need only stage his own predictable politics to claim artist status, a view that has given us such current performance pieces as the publicly performed loss of anal virginity at a London art school or a video-recorded use of a cement sex toy at the San Francisco Art Institute.

Delacroix depicts Hamlet standing over Polonius's corpse.
Gianni Dagli Orti/The Art Archive at Art Resource, NY
Delacroix depicts Hamlet standing over Polonius’s corpse.

There is, in other words, much bad news today about the humanist impulse. What we rarely hear is the good news: thanks to enlightened philanthropy, the enduring lure of beauty, and, yes, market forces, the humanist impulse is thriving in many places beyond the university.

The most important classical music development of our time is a direct rebirth of the Renaissance spirit: a loose group of performers known as the “early-music” movement is determined to re-create how music from the baroque and classical eras was originally performed. Like the Renaissance scholars who realized that the classical texts that had come down to them had been corrupted by errors, these musicians believe that twentieth-century performance styles veered drastically from how baroque music was intended to be played. The results have been a revelation, releasing submerged dance rhythms and resurrecting long-forgotten composers—such as Hasse, Porpora, and Steffani—who urgently deserve to be heard again (see “Classical Music’s New Golden Age,” Summer 2010).

But even those musicians not seeking the holy grail of authentic period performance are driven by the same humanist reverence for past genius. At the 2013 Texas State International Piano Festival (that despised Red State hosts many such festivals), an 11-year-old Asian-American pianist (and violinist) proudly recounted that her first piano instructor boasted a teaching lineage stretching back to Haydn. “I was so excited to learn that. I respect Haydn so much,” she told the NPR program From the Top, apparently untroubled by Haydn’s lamentable white-male status and thinking of him, like Petrarch of Cicero, as an almost-contemporary.

Regarding the visual arts, New Yorkers are particularly fortunate: many of New York’s museums still present the best of human creation, untainted by identity politics. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, former director Philippe de Montebello consciously fought off pressures for trendy relevance; his successor, Thomas Campbell, has so far preserved de Montebello’s magnificent legacy. (See “The Met’s Triumphant Democratic Elitism,” Winter 2001.) The Frick’s and the Morgan’s commitment to standards and taste is almost terrifyingly superb. Even the Brooklyn Museum of Art, which has flailed of late, can still triumph: its 2013 John Singer Sargent watercolor show was the exhibit of the year, flooding the galleries with Sargent’s jewel colors, blinding light, and lush sensuality, and accompanied by a catalog of sound and empathetic scholarship.

The Brooklyn Museum recently celebrated John Singer Sargent's sublime watercolors.
Scala/White Images/Art Resource, NY
The Brooklyn Museum recently celebrated John Singer Sargent’s sublime watercolors.

None of this accomplishment can be taken for granted; leadership is crucial, and it can turn in an instant. New York’s music press has been baying for the Metropolitan Opera to give over the house completely to revisionist opera directing. Yet New York audiences, unlike those in Europe, can still see productions that take the composer’s intention as their lodestar, however much such fidelity enrages the commentariat.

The demand side for the humanities is also robust. The Great Courses Company has been making a nice profit selling recorded lectures on such topics as Virgil’s Aeneid, the Enlightenment, and the Civil War to adults who rightly feel shortchanged by their college education (see “Great Courses, Great Profits,” Summer 2011). Publishing has capitalized on this thirst for knowledge as well. The success of Myron Magnet’s wonderful new book, The Founders at Home, like that of other recent serious studies aimed at a broad readership, proves that the public’s appetite for urbane explorations of American history is boundless.

Yet though the humanist spirit is chugging along nicely outside the university, the university remains its natural home, from which it should not be in exile. We have bestowed on the faculty the best job in the world: freed from the pressures of economic competition, professors are actually paid to spend their days wandering among the most sublime creations of mankind. All we ask of them in return is that they sell their wares to ignorant undergraduates. Every fall, insistent voices should rise from the faculty lounges and academic departments saying: here is greatness, and this is your best opportunity to absorb it. Here is Aeschylus, whose hypnotic choruses bear witness to dark forces more unsettling than you can yet fathom. Here is Mark Twain, Hapsburg Vienna, and the Saint Matthew Passion. Here is the drama of Western civilization, out of whose constantly battling ideas there emerged unprecedented individual freedom and unimagined scientific progress.

Instead, the professoriate is tongue-tied when it comes to promoting the wonders of its patrimony. These privileged cowards can’t even summon the guts to prescribe the course work that every student must complete in order to be considered educated. Need it be said? Students don’t know anything. That’s why they’re in college, and they certainly don’t know enough to select courses that will give them the rudiments of culture. The transcripts that result from the professoriate’s abdication of its intellectual responsibility are not a pretty sight, featuring as many movie and video courses as a student can stuff into each semester.

When the academy is forced to explain the value of the humanities, the language that it uses is pathetically insipid. You may have heard the defense du jour, tossed out en route to the next gender studies conference. The humanities, we are told, teach “critical thinking.” Is this a joke? These are the same people who write sentences like this: “Total presence breaks on the univocal predication of the exterior absolute the absolute existent (of that of which it is not possible to univocally predicate an outside, while the equivocal predication of the outside of the absolute exterior is possible of that of which the reality so predicated is not the reality. . . . of the self).”And we’re supposed to believe that they can think? Moreover, the sciences provide critical thinking skills as well—far more rigorous ones, in fact, than the hackneyed deconstructions of advertising that the left-wing academy usually means by critical thinking.

It is no wonder, then, that we have been hearing of late that the humanities are in crisis. A recent Harvard report, cochaired by the school’s premier postcolonial studies theorist, Homi Bhabha, lamented that 57 percent of incoming Harvard students who initially declare interest in a humanities major eventually change concentrations. Why may that be? Imagine an intending lit major who is assigned something by Professor Bhabha: “If the problematic Ωclosure≈ of textuality questions the totalization of national culture. . . .” How soon before that student concludes that a psychology major is more up his alley?

No, the only true justification for the humanities is that they provide the thing that Faust sold his soul for: knowledge. It is knowledge of a particular kind, concerning what men have done and created over the ages. The American Founders drew on an astonishingly wide range of historical sources and an appropriately jaundiced view of human nature to craft the world’s most stable and free republic. They invoked lessons learned from the Greek city-states, the Carolingian Dynasty, and the Ottoman Empire in the Constitution’s defense. And they assumed that the new nation’s citizens would themselves be versed in history and political philosophy. Indeed, a closer knowledge among the electorate of Hobbes and the fragility of social order might have prevented the more brazen social experiments that we’ve undergone in recent years. Ignorance of the intellectual trajectory that led to the rule of law and the West’s astounding prosperity puts those achievements at risk.

But humanistic learning is also an end in itself. It is simply better to have escaped one’s narrow, petty self and entered minds far more subtle and vast than one’s own than never to have done so. The Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino said that a man lives as many millennia as are embraced by his knowledge of history. One could add: a man lives as many different lives as are embraced by his encounters with literature, music, and all the humanities and arts. These forms of expression allow us to see and feel things that we would otherwise never experience—society on a nineteenth-century Russian feudal estate, for example, or the perfect crystalline brooks and mossy shades of pastoral poetry, or the exquisite languor of a Chopin nocturne.

Ultimately, humanistic study is the loving duty we owe those artists and thinkers whose works so transform us. It keeps them alive, as well as us, as Petrarch and Poggio Bracciolini understood. The academic narcissist, insensate to beauty and nobility, knows none of this.

And as politics in Washington and elsewhere grows increasingly unmoored from reality, humanist wisdom provides us with one final consolation: there is no greater lesson from the past than the intractability of human folly.

SHARE
respondrespondTEXT SIZE
If you enjoyed
this article,
why not subscribe
to City Journal? subscribe Get the Free App on iTunes Or sign up for free online updates:

View Comments (141)

Add New Comment:

To send your message, please enter the words you see in the distorted image below, in order and separated by a space, and click "Submit." If you cannot read the words below, please click here to receive a new challenge.

Comments will appear online. Please do not submit comments containing advertising or obscene language. Comments containing certain content, such as URLs, may not appear online until they have been reviewed by a moderator.