More than 30 years ago, the philosopher Allan Bloom wrote The Closing of the American Mind, which bemoaned the moral and epistemic “relativism” — as he called it — that had infected American campuses. A flood of polemics followed from like-minded conservatives, defending the “classical” liberal arts curriculum of Great Dead White Men against “postmodern” revisionism.
Most of these critics failed to see the irony, that much of that revisionism came from humanities faculties in European and American universities, by professors who were taught the Great Dead White Men, and who are now (mostly) Great Dead White Men themselves.
The literary theorist Stanley Fish was once asked to explain deconstruction. He described a Bob Newhart skit from the 1960s, in which Bob pretended to be talking to the 16th Century explorer Walter Raleigh, about a plant Raleigh had just discovered called ‘tobacco’, and its uses.
Bob played an Englishman from the 1500s who didn’t know what smoking was. The skit was hilarious, because the idea — of taking a leaf, rolling it in a piece of paper, then sticking it between your lips and setting it on fire — sounds strange when you first hear it. It only stopped being weird when we got accustomed to smoking.
Bob took his audience back in time, and made them see that what they took for granted was once an odd practice with a specific historical origin, before it became associated by tobacco advertisers with sophistication and class, then finally deprecated as an unhealthy vice. In other words, Bob did what the postmodernist philosopher Michel Foucault called “conceptual archaeology”, also known as deconstruction.
As Fish explained, deconstruction is the task of showing that a ubiquitous practice, which we now think couldn’t be any other way, once didn’t exist in our neck of the woods, and folks got on fine without it. Which leads us to ponder how that practice came to be thought of as immutable. Oftentimes, the practice itself changes the culture in ways that make the practice indispensable.
This happened, in a mild way, with smoking. Nicotine is addictive, so that helped spread the habit. Then tobacco advertisers associated it with being successful, which made it socially acceptable, even de rigueur. Finally, X-rays and modern surgery came along, and people could literally see the damage caused by smoking, and the idea of inhaling burning leaves became strange again, almost full-circle back to the 1500s.
It’s the same with humanities faculties. Every time a university even suggests closing one of its liberal arts departments, say Philosophy or English Literature, it’s inevitably met with a petition signed by humanities scholars worldwide, raging against the loss of yet another indispensable cultural institution. “Where will students go to read great books? Where can they ponder and discuss the deep questions of life, like what it all means and who they are?”
It rarely occurs to these petitioners that a) people had been, and are, doing all those things outside universities, b) there is no evidence that universities do it better, and c) that it’s a little elitist to think that the only way to be a more “progressive/open-minded person” — or whatever goals they cite to justify the practice — can only, mainly, or even at all be attained by taking humanities courses in a university. In fact, it’s downright patronizing and insulting to the vast majority of the human race!
When we look at the origins of the humanities as a university-centered practice, we find them to be as peculiar as the idea of smoking used to be. For one thing, there isn’t a single origin story. Ancient languages were studied in monasteries so clerics could read religious texts. Greek, Latin — and French later on — were taught to the children of European aristocrats because it was the classy thing to do (and still is, in some pricier schools). Plus Latin and French were lingua franca for aristocrats from different parts of Europe, and formal documents used to be in Latin. Aristocrats modeled themselves on the Ancient Greeks, who were also landowners with a contempt for the underclass.
English literature was a latecomer in universities, only being taught significantly from the mid-18th century. Philosophy is one of the oldest university subjects, but the Aristotelian ‘philosophy’ taught in the Middle and Dark Ages bore little resemblance to modern analytic philosophy, which in turn differs greatly from the ‘continental’ variety popular in Europe, which many analytic philosophers view with disdain. Recently, there has been a proliferation of humanities subjects, many called ‘[fill-in-the-blank] studies’, leading to ever-larger humanities faculties with correspondingly more clout in the universities.
We can see where the original classical idea of the humanities as a “civilizing” influence came from. The aristocrats thought they were “civilized”, and by association, that all the markers of aristocracy — be it clothes, manners, or style of education — were “civilizing” because that’s what “civilized” people did. This idea allowed the elites to claim, falsely, that they deserved to be where they were because they were “better” people.
And they wanted everyone else to think that too. Since the aristocrats did no professional or manual work, and looked down on it, they elevated the “life of the mind” as an ideal, exemplified by talking and thinking about abstract ideas (all the way back to the Ancient Greek philosophers, whose slaves did all the manual work). Fast-forward to today, and that attitude hasn’t changed. “Civilized” is now politically incorrect, but it’s been replaced with equally amorphous terms like “more reflective/critical”, all equally condescending to anyone who’s never taken a university humanities course!
The academic humanities can never stop self-aggrandizing, because they know the emperor has no clothes. It was all about self-aggrandizement from the get-go. Hence the postmodern turn, because if everything’s a “text”, all of a sudden an English professor is a social justice warrior, “reading” becomes a radical political act, and rhetoric takes center-stage. A discipline that once didn’t exist in universities now becomes culturally relevant, because it changed the culture to make itself relevant.
Then it becomes ever-harder to get a job teaching in a humanities department unless you subscribe to an increasingly narrow set of ideas, depending on who’s in the driver’s seat of these “cultural institutions”. The list of academics getting sidelined or fired for ‘wrongthink’ grows longer by the day. Hoards of students are manipulated by faceless thought-leaders into harassing anyone who steps out of line. No department is immune, not even the sciences. The monster is devouring its own children, and everyone else’s.
There’s only one way to stop — or at least slow down — this runaway train powered by its own noxious fumes, and that is to deconstruct it. To expose its roots in class prejudice and historical happenstance, to deny it the oxygen of taxpayer funding and the imprimatur of a university, to let people read the books they want, and talk about the ideas they want, without a thought police telling them what books they can read, and what ideas they can talk about. It’s time to take the humanities back.