23 September, 2007

Academic humanism: a diagnosis

We are to address the role of the university in providing and sustaining an intellectual life; more specifically, a life in the humanities—a humanist life. So let us begin at the beginning, with an account of the earliest universites, which evolved from earlier schools some time around 1200. There is a fair amount of history and quotation in this post, gentle reader, but I hope you will not let that put you off from the body of my actual arguments.


The mediaeval liberal arts curriculum was oriented towards careers at court (eg. arithmetic for accounting) or in the Church (eg. astronomy for the computus). The best liberal arts students graduated to theology, the most prestigious subject of study; others to law or medicine. The Church stood by, with blessing or condemnation, ready to snap up the cream for its own. In this respect it resembled the rich multinationals that finance university programmes today (eg. Hewlett Packard at MIT), only its authority was paramount. It was the Church and its minister Bernard that condemned Abelard in 1130 and again in 1144; it was the Church that condemned Aquinas in 1277, along with the heretical Averroist Siger of Brabant; it was the Church that fostered the growth of the friars at the Sorbonne in the mid-thirteenth century. So it would seem a little strange, would it not, if someone were to claim that the mediaeval universities were in any way autonomous?
The university corporations of the Middle Ages at the height of their power were not responsible to anybody, in the sense that they could not be brought to book by any authority. They claimed, and succeeded in making their claim good, complete independence of all secular and religious control.
Thus Robert Hutchins, in The University of Utopia (1953). The American reformers of the mid-century were, in fact, full of mediaeval dreamings. In a recent book, William Haarlow quotes Stringfellow Barr, co-author, with Scott Buchanan, of the massively influential 1935 Virginia Plan, which outlined a university curriculum based on the Great Books:
The [reading] list reflected the title of [Buchanan’s] Poetry and Mathematics and the connection between these two modes of thought and expression; between the medieval trivium and quadrivium that he and Adler and McKeon had argued about in the days of his seminars for the People’s Institute.
And indeed, in Poetry and Mathematics (1929), Buchanan has more to say about Richard McKeon, the great mediaevalist scholar (and student of the Neo-Thomist Etienne Gilson), whose work on the liberal arts curriculum would prove so influential to the educational theories of his contemporaries. Only a year after the drafting of the Virginia Plan, Hutchins could already write, in The Higher Learning in America:
The medieval university had a princple of unity. It was theology. . . The medieval university was rationally ordered, and, for its time, it was practically ordered, too. But these are other times; and we are trying to discover a rational and practical order for the higher learning of today.
He goes on to deny any specific system, but he insists that his ideal university would consist of three main faculties—natural sciences, social sciences, and metaphysics. Metaphysics, in other words, is for Hutchins the queen of the humanities. And he had good precedent: Newman (Idea of the University, 1852) had written that ‘all branches of knowledge are connected together, because the subject-matter of knowledge is intimately united in itself, as being the acts and the work of the Creator’. Before that, Coleridge and Bentham had drawn up schemata showing the interrelation of different fields of knowledge, and their ultimate Platonic unity—a project going all the way back, through Peter Ramus and John Dee, to classical antiquity.

How strange this seems to us! Some of us are positivists; others postmodernists—all of us firmly against metaphysics. If you go to a second-hand bookstore, at least in America, ‘metaphysics’ now means ‘New Age gibberish’. Wittgenstein, we suspect, is chuckling maniacally from the clouds. But Hutchins is squirming: for as he has it, ‘consciously or unconsciously we are always trying to get’ a metaphysical system. The intellectual trends of the next sixty-odd years would prove him quite wrong: we have drifted further and further away from wanting any sort of system. We have drifted towards Toulmin and Wittgenstein, towards the postmoderns and Feyerabend, towards an anthropological sort of relativism. Nobody, it seems, except perhaps a handful of desparate Catholics, still wants a metaphysics at all, let alone a metaphysics at the hierarchical summit of the humanities. Even before the surge of relativism, J. A. Rice had complained that St. John’s College, still famous for its Great Books programme, ‘trains its students not for the church, as Oxford did then, and not for any office in or under an oligarchy, but for something pleasantly vague: to be artists in the art of thinking, Neo-Thomist dialectitions [sic], lawyers, without law’.

And yet the historical and prescriptive beliefs of Hutchins and his ilk stand as the vague foundation for the way a large proportion of our humanities departments are today structured. We still, most of us, believe in the ‘liberal arts’ and the ‘Great Books’: and the liberal arts and the Great Books are, for better or worse, essentially a metaphysics.


In 1408, the humanist Guarino of Verona returned from his studies in Constantinople to open a school in Florence. Later, the school moved to Venice, and then to d’Este Ferrara, where it eventually became the arts faculty of the new university. Guarino’s course began with an ‘elementary’, which taught students to read and pronounce Classical Latin; it continued with the teaching of grammar, and then of history, geography and mythology. Large amounts of memorisation and repetition were not only required—they were, naturally, the very basis of the education. Students would proceed to learn tropes from the pseudo-Ciceronian Rhetoric, and to a lesser extent from the orations of the real Cicero, and finally build up an insider’s knowledge of Latin by reading authors like Pliny and Augustine.

When Guarino’s students left his school, they could read and speak Latin extempore, compose formal letters and orations, imitate poems and recite ‘facts’ of etymology and classical history. More to the point, their attitude to social authority had been irrevocably shaped by an awe and deference towards classical texts. They had become good, contributing members of society, and would go on to get well-paid jobs at the court or papal chancery. Their parents, of course, lapped it up. In Guarino’s school, as in the mediaeval universities, education was in the service of civil obedience—of the State. (It was, Mencius, much more a 'pretext for Party training' than it is now.) The same sort of conditions held in late Victorian and Edwardian England, and the last, scant vestiges of it can be seen in the sort of education I received at public school—Latin and Greek from age 10, lucky me!

The practices of Italian humanism, unlike those of thirteenth-century Paris, do not depend on a hierarchical metaphysics or theology. But they still depend on a Platonic understanding of human character, an unfailing faith in the moral value of classical literature, and a social structure still essentially aristocratic and authoritarian. Both paedagogies trained for uniformity and diligence; neither for creativity or freethinking. Both, amazingly, managed to produce young men of astounding creativity and free thought.


If our modern educational ideals can be described, with any accuracy, as a confluence of the mediaeval liberal arts programmes (as interpreted by mid-century American theorists) and the revival of text-based humanism, how can we make sense of a system whose social and metaphysical foundations have been almost eradicated?

One of the most common complaints about traditional liberal arts paedagogy is that it is inherently élitist—‘dead white males’ and all the rest of it. An education, it is claimed, should be for all. Anti-élitism, curiously, was one of the motivations of the liberal arts theorists as well—although the arguments are, invariably, rather confused. In The University of Utopia Hutchins writes that ‘everybody can and should learn’—and adds the rather sinister corollary, ‘I should welcome any method by which people are seduced into forming the habit of learning’. In his 1953 critique of Hutchins (‘one of the best, wittiest and most unanswerable things I’ve ever done’), F. R. Leavis accuses him of naïve democratism. Hutchins is quoted—
If leisure and political power are a reason for liberal education, then everybody in America now has this reason, and everybody where democracy and industrialization penetrate will ultimately have it. If leisure and political power require this education, everybody in America now requires it, and everybody where democracy and industrialization penetrate will ultimately require it.
Mortimer Adler, Hutchins’ co-conspirator on the Chicago Great Books project, had similar ideals in mind when he extolled the 'learning which belongs to everybody and should be the common culture in which everybody participates’. The liberal arts programmes are proposed to create a generalist educated democracy alongside the specialist departments of academia, with the Great Books providing society with a common currency of historical thought. Democracy, in fact, cannot reasonably function in a society lacking a liberal education—as Hutchins writes: 'If the people are not capable of acquiring this education, they should be deprived of political power and probably of leisure. Their uneducated political power is dangerous, and their uneducated leisure is degrading and will be dangerous.'

Leavis thinks this ridiculous: élitism, of a sort, after all, is necessary for any stable society: 'It is disastrous to let a country’s educational arrangements be determined, or even affected, by the assumption that a high intellectual standard can be attained by more than a small minority'. Or again:
The attempt to establish a democratic educational system in Great Britain has gone on the assumption that far from everybody has the capacity to justify his or her presence at a university—if ‘university’ is to mean anything—and that there must consequently be a severe sifting.
Leavis, no less than Hutchins, wanted an 'educated public'. But although Leavis approved of Alexander Meiklejohn's liberal arts programme at Wisconsin (1927-32), he was sceptical of 'unrooted global eclecticism', of the mish-mash of classics of all disciplines proposed by Hutchins and Adler. Like many critics, he advocated the expansion of higher education, but wanted to restrict the growth of the university, which he identified with Oxbridge and put in the role of a dominant centre; as R. P. Bilan puts it in his 1979 book about Leavis, 'if the university is to help create the new educated public it must itself be a real centre and thus attempt to counter the increasing specialization that has, ultimately, led to the loss of a centre in society'. And at the centre of the university would be not metaphysics or the sciences, but a humanities structured around literature: and then not a canon of Great Books, but a 'living tradition'.

Despite his criticisms, Leavis was much like Hutchins. Both, for instance, deplored the positivists like Snow, who equated life with 'mortality tables' or 'standards of living'. But Leavis' arguments, unlike Hutchins', were entirely ignored. Universities have multiplied and fragmented—the 1963 Robbins Report, which Leavis denounced, promoted science over the humanities, and advocated more universities in response to growing demand. The Further and Higher Education Act (1992) allowed polytechnics to start calling themselves 'universities', leading to an even more crowded marketplace.

Even more damagingly, for a Leavisite—the university has grown drastically farther away from the common man. Academics are perceived as an irrelevance at best; at worst, as a threat. Professional writers hardly talk to English professors, just as, if Mencius is to believed, programmers hardly talk to computer science departments. There has developed a professional—not an intellectual—élitism, or rather a ghettoisation. And the 'school of resentment', as Harold Bloom has termed it, has sprung up to level charges of social élitism wherever it can. The feminists, post-colonialists, Marxists and so on—all reject the Hutchinsian notion that the Great Books represent a common culture: they see in it only the vested interest of the all-encompassing Patriarchy.


So the academic humanities have lost their metaphysical justification, their wider place in a social or political hierarchy, and their noble humanist purpose. Is there anything else, Doctor?
The causes of the media’s sniping at the University are not individual resentments but a more general uncertainty as to the role of the University and the very nature of the standards by which it should be judged as an institution.
I quote Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins (1996). Readings diagnoses yet another problem with the humanities: their unhappy transition from being the ‘custodian of national culture’, and thus the Koh-i-Noor in the nation-state's ideological crown—whether Humboldt’s Germany or Wilson’s America—to being the useless appendage of a ‘transnational bureaucratic corporation’. And Readings is quite right to note the trend—he discusses, among other things, the rise of the university’s administrative sector and the development of corporatisation and branding. Like me, he sees the university as having outlived its own purpose, only he has a different purpose in mind:
I would prefer to call the contemporary University “posthistorical” rather than “postmodern” in order to insist upon the sense that the institution has outlived itself, is now a survivor of the era in which it defined itself in terms of the project of the historical development, affirmation, and inculcation of national culture.
Despite his misgivings, he does not propose a radical answer:
So what is the point of the University, if we realize that we are no longer to strive to realize a national identity, be it an ethnic essence or a republican will? In asking such a question I am not suggesting that I want to blow up the University, or even to resign from my job.
His prognosis, in fact, is pretty weak, and amounts to a subaudible mumbling about 'dissensual dialogism' and 'thought beside itself'. Perhaps he would have been able to flesh out a more worthwhile response one day—but he died before his book's publication. Ah well. Still, Mencius is on hand with the solution turned down by Readings: 'the Henry VIII treatment—unconditional abolition and confiscation' of the universities. I wrote a short rhetorical reply here, which was flippant but nevertheless contained the germ of my actual views expressed in this post. The problem with Mencius' post is that its proposals rest on a wild and totally unsubstantiated claim that the 'universities are directly responsible for almost all the violence in the world today', on a few charming anecdotes about 1970s Hegelianism and 1990s computer science, told at considerable length, and. . . well, that's about it. But the cages rattle and the Menciophilical mob roars with delight, as it so often does. (He really is a very convincing demagogue, especially if, like me, your judgements are easily swayed.) The other problem with his post is that he doesn't address the humanities at all. For some reason he seems to prefer them to science departments. So his post is of no use to us here.


But why preserve the academic humanities? What would we lose if they went? What could we imagine in their stead? Could they be replaced, as our commenter Michael has suggested, with a sort of unofficial academy or society of study? It's a tempting thought. We can think of the standard examples: Ficino's Florentine Academy, Gresham College, the Royal Society, the circles of Erasmus and later the various Republics of Letters—even the Académie Française. Why couldn't we restore groups like this, and restrict our own humanist activities to them? We wouldn't need any metaphysics, any political hierarchies, any justification to the taxpayer, any Noble Social Purpose. The problem of bureaucratization would be irrelevant. We would be amatores.

The problem with this is a question of leisure. The members of the above societies all had proper jobs—and jobs, moreover, that fed and sustained (and thus legitimated) their interests and talents. But they also had considerable free time in which to study. As Mencius notes, in a recent comment here, 'a humanist was either an aristocrat, or a professional serving a largely aristocratic market'. Because they were operating in an essentially aristocratic milieu, they could afford the leisure time required for amateur study. Court and Church alike are conducive to educated leisure.

But we don't have the leisure any more. We can't afford it. And the work that most of us do—whether in finance, media or the service sector—hardly sustains our interests and talents. Those who fiddle numbers by day, and read old books by night—those few—are forced to lead a divided life hardly conducive to serious reflection or intellectual progress. Some of us might be patronised by loved ones, or subsidised by earlier financial success—but such situations are scarce. This is the situation of a society oriented around the middle classes.

And while it is nice to be Chris Miller—a non-academic lover of the arts—if we were all Millers, the sorts of books that Millers like to read wouldn't get written. We would never make any new discoveries; our thoughts would tread the old paths again and again. In the modern world, if not in Ficino's or Newton's, academic study makes possible non-academic study.

So while we may, like Michael, wish that universities 'as officially sanctioned diploma mills were eliminated', we are forced to conclude that in order to satisfy large numbers of humanist-minded individuals—or even to satisfy those intelligent and talented enough to produce worthwhile results—the existence of professional institutions is necessary.


The problem, then, is how to establish a professional environment for humanism, without being prey to all those factors that might render the institutional humanities retrograde, obsolete, and lacking in social function? How do we come to terms with a world increasingly inimical to 'purposeless' intellectual enquiry? How can we do what we like to do, as a paid community, and do it with dignity?

I'm not sure I can answer this yet. But there's the problem at least.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful post, Conrad ... one I've been waiting to read for quite a while.

I might rephrase (distort, actually) your final statement of the situation this way: how might we re-organize society to re-establish an Aristotelian entrenched aristocracy supported by slave labor allowing this aristocracy the leisure to pursue their humanist interests.

There is one answer out there worth considering -- technology. Even Marx discussed the eventuality of mechanized systems (robots?) that would eventually free us from labor, and the pitch from Microsoft for several years has been that computer automation is not intended to replace jobs, but rather to free white-collar workers from menial clerical duties so they can better turn their attention toward creative and fulfilling tasks that (wink nod to the managerial classes) will provide new revenue streams for companies.

Advocates of the coming Singularity propose that around 2045, intelligent machines will begin shaping technology at their own pace making predictions about the future state of technology (such as variations of Moore's Law) no longer tenable. It is a moment after which technology will be able to achieve all the things we currently believe it cannot -- one of which is freeing us of labor and allowing us to pursue the lives we desire.

I think many technophilic people are pining for such a thing, and maybe even some humanities-loving sorts, too.

At the same time, it is worth recalling that Descartes believed that his Method would transform science (it did) to the point where in his lifetime we would understand the mechanism of the body such that immortality would be within reach (it didn't), after which, as a sort of consolation and acceptance, he wrote The Passions of the Soul.

Other than a magical Singularity or a retraction of anti-slavery laws, though, I'm not sure how enough leisure could be generated to displace and improve upon the current Liberal Arts curriculum.

Perhaps those who pursue useless knowledge need to find a way to make enough money off of their pursuits to free themselves from white-collar labor.

Or perhaps this is just as good as it gets.

Unknown said...

Hi all,

Wittgenstein once said that a philosopher is a member of no community in particular. Considered in light of his own unremitting isolation and loneliness, the remark makes sense. On another occasion, he said that philosophy is not itself a discrete subject, but should instead infuse all other subjects. Both remarks suggest an adverbial conception of philosophy. Like humour, philosophy is not a subject in its own right, but rather qualifies one's approach to other activities. My modest provocation is that an adverbial conception of philosophy may serve as a model to rehabilitate the academic humanities just as Wittgenstein urged.

Anyone interested?


Simon van Rysewyk

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, Ziff, and smart comments--I've heard of this Singularity business (via Eliezer Yudkowsky) but don't know much about the theories. Interesting remarks about Microsoft, too; I didn't know that was their pitch. Do you buy it?

Simon, thanks, but--"an adverbial conception of philosophy may serve as a model to rehabilitate the academic humanities just as Wittgenstein urged"--could you elaborate?

Anonymous said...

"How can we do what we like to do, as a paid community, and do it with dignity?"

The old adage has it, I think correctly, that he who pays the piper calls the tune. It all depends on who is paying!

The humanities or liberal arts face, though less visibly, just the same problem as the musical, plastic, and dramatic arts. The great artists of the past had individual patrons of great wealth and power, answerable to no one but themselves. Today would-be artists have to appeal to boards or committees for patronage. Is this not a sufficient explanation of the results?

Sir G said...

Monsieur Ziffer:

the pitch sounds lovely but i detect two problems: first, there are plenty of us who are not creative in the MS sense; what will they do when jobs no longer provide them with a structure to their lives. (i suppose the answer might be computer games); and second, there is something very satisfying about having my laundry done, my food cooked, and my bed made by a real person, who comes every day to do this, who receives in return a decent wage, thanks, love and respect. would i be able to feel quite as fuzzy about a robotic maid?

Herr C:

I had several profs in college who taught literature and history classes as if they were lessons in life. One gave lectures on Lear (and bastardy) in which he discussed the need to find our proper role; another (Brower) taught Japanese poetry discussing, for example, the need for enlightened self-deception in life; and so forth. these fellows were truly truly great. it was a pleasure to pay them.

chris miller said...

On the personal level -- there's nothing I'd rather see than Conrad receive a healthy annual stipend to do nothing more than read more obscure books and continue working on his history of the European and American university. ( a really good one has never been written, has it ?)

But in the bigger picture -- I don't think there's any institution in modern life that needs
more radical reform than the university - not just relative to the humanities, but regarding
all the professions for which it has become the gatekeeper.

The Henry VIII approach (proposed by Mencius) certainly has some emotional appeal (and Mencius is another person who should receive a healthy stipend to do nothing
but read and write) -- but Mao tried something like that in China in the 60's and it doesn't work.
It just grew back.

Regarding other radical approaches -- maybe the best thing to do is nothing -- and let the internet replace it. (I have no idea why on-line degrees are so expensive. I'm sure that with time, economic pressure will drive those prices down, and eventually the American university campus won't need to be burned to the ground, it will be sold off to meet expenses)

Regarding who writes the kind of books that one of the "Chris Millers of the world" has been reading -- I'm not sure how many
authors were university professors. Certainly Jacques Barzun was --- but as a generalist, he is something of an anomaly, isn't he ?
(and he gave a good bite to the hand that fed him). Most of my most cherished scholars are translators -- and looking at the life of Arthur Waley, for example - it seems rather marginal to the university. He taught himself to read Chinese and Japanese -- and his only university degree was honorary.

Thinking back to my own university experience (at a big state university in the 60's) -- I was told to look for good teachers and in my final year, I finally found one, a Marxist political philosopher. What a mind ! I had a great time with him --- but mostly those four years of living under the football stadium were just a waste. Would I have done better if I had the 2007 internet instead of the 1967 university ? I really don't know.

The only thing I'm sure I would have missed was participating in the student riots of my senior year -- which might have been the most educational experience that I had there.

Anonymous said...

Barring an always on the horizon Singularity (which if you'd like to bone-up on you should read Kurzweil) I don't imagine vast stores of leisure time will be opened to us any time soon. The statistics say that we are working longer hours. I fear the full time semi-autodidactic gentleman scholar is not a breed we're likely to see scouring the shelves at our local bookshops. Likewise a vibrant and fully functional fraternity of them seems unlikely.

Their existence is certain, (some are right here among us) but not having enough time to devote, and hence poor odds at any notable accomplishments, a perpetual amateur status seems assured.

I'd contend that part of the problem lies in we moderns inability and disinclination to agree upon an essential Canon. Our disenfranchisement from Truth. Postmodernism's relativistic tendencies and the liberal imperative of equal time for all ideas has left us, more and more, without a common cultural value system. (Or, depending on the haughtiness of your delivery, a more "common" one. Cough cough.)

Without a culture-wide "high" to aim for, and "low" to try and boot-strap our way out of, we are left with a culture in which all modes of human expression are roughly equal. In which everything is an Art. In which anyone who ever spoke is worth quoting and anyone who ever drew breath deserves a biography. In which every idea ever expounded has an equal claim on Truth.

In such an intellectual climate why not design video games, or write romantic comedy film scripts, or devote your time to a blog about celebrity fashion? A person is just as likely to attain respect, adulation, wealth, and a comforting sense of self worth down any of these avenues. Why bother with anything more difficult?

As Michael mentions, "he who pays the piper calls the tune." Is there any doubt that he who calls the tune is invariably someone outside the Humanities? If society at large, meaning those not already part of the choir, can no longer see the value in the Humanities, if they no longer view it as a bastion for the most admirable, desirable kind of knowledge, then we are left with simply another niche or interest group. One which is impoverished and shrinking and could not be saved by all the leisure time in the world. Could it? Because no one outside the niche would care what the members produced and fewer and fewer would care to join its ranks.

It seems to me either a better case must be made that "higher learning" actually exists in the modern world, and is relevant, and has a value beyond the perpetuation of its own institutions, or those institutions must embrace all of humanity's creative output without distinction. If the latter is the case, then why not, as Chris said, "let the internet replace it?" It seems imminently more qualified for that sort of thing.

Anyhow, if the whole wonderful thing gets reduced to a fez-wearing leisure club, with arcane rituals and secret handshakes, I'd very much like to join, so long as I can smoke a pipe and sip brandy by the fireplace.

Anonymous said...

There are models of instruction other than the school or university that have historically supported a paid professional community. These might be considered and adapted for humanistic purposes.

There's a long tradition of private tutoring in music, from the humblest level to the greatest heights. I am acquainted with several working or retired professional musicians whose musical training was mainly or exclusively private, including one who was a pupil of Nadia Boulanger.

Another possible model is apprenticeship. While we associate this mainly with skilled manual trades, it once was widely used amongst the "learned professions." ABA requirements have largely eliminated this option for the study of law in the U.S., but I believe it is still possible to become a solicitor in England by serving as an articled clerk, or to become a barrister by dining in term at the Inns of Court the requisite number of times. Many specialties in the financial sector are still basically learnt on the job, with certification by exam for those who want or need it.

A third model is one that I don't think exists yet, but which seems to me might be feasible. It's sn extension of the home schooling concept. Reports I have seen suggest that one might well expect to pay US$30,000 per year for tuition at a private university of "good" quality. Let's suppose that a dozen students (or their parents) instead of spending this money at Yale, Stanford, or wherever, pooled their resources and hired three or four scholars of repute to tutor them privately for $30K a year apiece. This would yield gross incomes for the tutors of $90,000 - $120,000 - certainly enough to enable them to do what they liked to to with dignity. The low ratio of students to instructors would permit a level of personal interaction unrivalled by that at any American university, and perhaps equivalent or superior to the system of personal tutoring at Oxford or Cambridge.

Obviously this would not be a workable model for instruction in such fields as the laboratory sciences or medicine, which require capital-intensive teaching tools. But it ought to work admirably for the study of humane letters - or mathematics and purely theoretical science. One ancient and considerable value for the study of the humanities at the great universities, namely their extensive libraries, is now available remotely via the Internet.

What my suggestion would NOT do, of course, is to supply the main desideratum for which many parents send their children to universities, namely the prestigious credentials they offer. However, for those who simply wanted to learn I think it would well repay the expenditure.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Gawain: "I had several profs in college who taught literature and history classes as if they were lessons in life."

This is great! What does it have to do with my post?

Chris: Yes, translators are a bit different, and there is no need for them to be tied to a university. I'm not sure that what the humanities need is exactly 'reform', as opposed to reevaluation and a new self-awareness. The internet, I think, is a strong possibility, but it is still too limited and superficial.

Jaime: Thanks for this. "a perpetual amateur status seems assured"--that's exactly what I'm afraid of. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with amateurs--but as I said above, amateurs really only thrive when there are also professionals.

"an essential Canon": this I want to address in a future post, though probably not the next one. (I think we need a break from this subject for a bit!) However, I just discovered this link-site on the topic, which may be of interest.

"Anyhow, if the whole wonderful thing gets reduced to a fez-wearing leisure club, with arcane rituals and secret handshakes, I'd very much like to join, so long as I can smoke a pipe and sip brandy by the fireplace."

Hey--me too!

Michael: your last comment is a very interesting one! I don't have much to say, only that it would be great to consider these possible alternatives.

Phanero Noemikon said...

I wish you'd do a post on
the ancient universities of asia
and africa. i would like to know
more about that.

Sir G said...

"This is great! What does it have to do with my post?"

well, you asked the question:

"How can we do what we like to do, as a paid community, and do it with dignity?"

so which one of us is not getting it here?

otoh, you are not proposing that we submit proof of being a propos henceforth, are you?

chris miller said...

I'm wondering Conrad, what would change if we reversed your assertion to read as "professionals really only thrive when there are serious amateurs" (because I think that we amateurs, like Emily Dickenson, can do just fine without ever meeting a living professional)

And what if we don''t care whether "we would never make any new discoveries" -- as we allow that it's the quality of individual human life that's of real importance, newness is unavoidable, discovery is personal, and it's not really possible to tread the same path again and again -- because repeated treading unavoidably makes a path different.

Maybe the best professional humanist is really just a serious amateur who's temporarily picked up a teaching job to make ends meet - and our focus should shift to what would enable/encourage amateurs to become more serious.

(maybe it's a personality fault -- but I've never really liked teachers - and have always suspected that teaching should not
be a profession or full-time occupation)

If the biggest problem is leisure time -- maybe learning some specific business skill really is the best solution. (I'd gladly teach you how to run a record store -- but I'm sure that you'd be capable of practicing many more lucrative, less time consuming occupations)

Eileen Joy said...

Conrad: I cannot even begin to try and do justice here to your long and stimulating post, but I do have some ideas I would like to share, especially as regards your statement that universities have

"lost their metaphysical justification, their wider place in a social or political hierarchy, and their noble humanist purpose."

First, it's not true that "all of us" currently working in the university are "against metaphysics"--this is, again, simply not so. Can one really read the late writings of Derrida on justice, the law, and religion, or the deconstructionist religious philosophy of John Caputo or Emmanuel Levinas, or the writings of Alain Badiou or Leo Bersani & Ulysse Dutoit [especially their co-authored book, "Forms of Being: Cinema, Aesthetics, Subjecitivity"], or the "political theology" of a Kenneth Reinhard, or the philosophical work of a Pierre Hadot or a Martha Nussbaum, and say that "all of us" are "firmly against metaphysics"? I don't think so. Now, you can take a fiercely polemical anti-humanist text like Lee Edelman's "No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive" [and I assume we will see an even more fierce elaboration of his anti-humanism in his forthcoming "Bad Education"], and in this work, you pretty much have the most concise smashing of everything we used to think was important re: humanism, sociality, the liberal arts, metaphysical life, etc., but it does not speak for all of us, not by a mile. At the same time, you can look to some of the most recent work of the ardent theorists of post-humanism and the post-humanities, such as a Cary Wolfe or a Judith Butler [especially in her most recent books such as "Antigone's Claim" and "Precarious Life" and "Giving an Account of Oneself"], to actually find what I would call a radical re-elaboration of the humanist project that, in Butler's words, asks us:

"to live and embrace the destruction and rearticulation of the human in the name of a more capacious, and . . . less violent world, not knowing in advance what precise forms our humanness does and will take.” ["Undoing Gender," p. 35]

Humanism is not really being abandoned [although it may have seemed so at first from what might be called the first "reports" of the guns on the ramparts of postmodernism], but is being better historicized and better theorized, so we can see what to do next--which will not be to thrown over the humanities but to, hopefully, give them a whole new sense of a more capacious purpose, a purpose, moreover, that would still share something with the "older" humanisms: as my friend and colleague Michael Moore puts it in an essay he wrote for a special issue of the "Journal of Narrative Theory" on "Premodern to Modern Humanisms" that I recently edited [vol. 37, no. 2/Summer 2007], a "new humanism," like the "old humanism, would still have to:

"endeavor to capture the world of coming-to-be and passing-away, and above all, to hold and defend the traces of the fragile 'human reed' of Pascal’s famous fragment, and thereby to cooperate in the establishment, and the continuous creation of the world. As Pascal put it: 'A human being is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed'."

**The full essay, "An Historian's Notes Toward a Miloszan Humanism," can be found here:


It is, perhaps, somewhat ironic [I don't really know, though] that in the very late work and conversations between thinkers like Levinas, Derrida, and Caputo [and sure, throw in Badiou], metaphysics *does* return, as does a concern with redefining the legal subject of "rights" as well as the subjects [plural] of the ethical relationship. The "turn to the animal" in recent legal, philosophical, and other critical studies is one symptom of this which, for all of its dismantling of the privileged "human" subject, is deeply humanist.

I have much I want to say here, too, about your characterization of Readings' solution to the "problem" of the post-historical University is "pretty weak," but not tonight, as I must hurry home for dinner. But thank you so much for these rich provocations to thought on a subject that personally means a great deal to me and the other members of the BABEL Working Group [http://www.siue.edu/babel].

I shall return.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Phano: I'm afraid I know absolutely nothing about this subject. Why don't you inform us?

Gawain: "which one of us is not getting it here?"

OK, nobody is doubting that you still get great teachers--I had them at school, not at university. But there is a broader philosophical problem from the academic's point of view, not the student's.

Chris: "I think that we amateurs can do just fine without ever meeting a living professional"

Who said anything about meeting professionals? You want to read a book by Barzun--that book would not have been written if there were no universities.

"it's not really possible to tread the same path again and again"

In a limited sense, true. But without a community of work to build on, develop, argue with, etc., you just get stuck. It may be the case that there is already enough out there for you to learn without any new academics coming along--but the same is true of sculpture. Would you, like Thomas Love Peacock on poets, want to get rid of modern sculptors on the grounds that there's already enough sculpture out there?

"what would enable/encourage amateurs to become more serious"

I'm certainly sympathetic to this.

Eileen: thanks for your long and thoughtful comment. On metaphysics, I heartily confess that I am far more ignorant of the postmoderns you cite that I'd like to be. But let me clarify--when I say that "we" are against metaphysics, I don't mean that we are against the liberal arts and humanism (even though I identified the two historically): that would be silly. I mean only that we are against grand categorisations of Being, of the sort that was still faintly glimmering in the minds of Hutchins and Adler. If postmodernism is a 'scepticism towards grand narratives', surely this is the polar opposite of the metaphysical mind? Now I don't know the late Derrida, Badiou etc., so if you assured me that they were into metaphysics, and not just humanism, I would have to take your word for it. But Nussbaum, for instance, doesn't smack of explicit metaphysics at all, even if her classical worldview does historically derive from a world where metaphysics was taken for granted.

Second, 'humanism' is of course a very difficult word to use as there are a million definitions. Perhaps a weakness of this post (though it is after all just a post) is that I don't disentangle the different senses. I'm really using 'humanism' as synonymous with the 'humanities'; it is not clear to me how this squares with the concept of humanism in the Pico or Huxley sense of 'man is at the centre of the universe'. It is clear that humanism in my sense has not been abandoned--the world is still crawling with English and History academics!--aven if its historical values are meeting some resistance. One of the key problems, for me, is that modern 'defences' of humanism or the humanities seem to turn on airy, grand sentiments, like the Butler and Moore passages you quote; and we need something more. (I look forward to reading the rest of the Moore piece soon.)

Anyway, thanks for this perspective--it is very useful to have gifted professionals here as well as gifted amatores. I'm quite hopeful about where things might go...

Greg Afinogenov said...

Fantastic, unimpeachable post. I would recommend checking out Paul Goodman's '60s book The Community of Scholars. With his typical sensitivity and--in all senses--humanist spirit, Goodman really makes clear what the difference is between medieval universities and contemporary universities. There's a pretty accurate critique of Newman, too.

I also think that the Nietzsche of the Untimely Meditations is still extremely relevant--maybe even more so today than in his time. Humanism, the spirit of Petrarch and Erasmus, cannot be resuscitated without first reviving intellectual culture as such, and Nietzsche is the only one who has even begun to approach the question of what it would mean to do so. Unfortunately, the logic of the market and the ever-increasing politicization of the academy suggests that this possibility is remote--indeed, Utopian. (Can we even think of a place like Hesse's Castalia today?)

I leave you with Petrarch's exhortation, which you've no doubt read but which must stand as a creed for humanists for all time:

Let me not pass over in silence the more obvious pleasures: to devote oneself to reading and writing, alternately finding employment and relief in each, to read what our forerunners have written and to write what later generations may wish to read, to pay to posterity the debt which we cannot pay to the dead for the gift of their writings, and yet not remain altogether ungrateful to the dead but to make their names more popular if they are little known, to restore them if they have been forgotten, to dig them out if they have been buried in the ruins of time and to hand them down to our grandchildren as objects of veneration, to carry them in the heart and as something sweet in the mouth, and finally, by cherishing, remembering, and celebrating their fame in every way, to pay them the homage that is due to their genius even though it is not commensurate with their greatness.
- De Vita Solitaria

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, Greg. I'll check out the Goodman book when I come to write the proper version of this post. Which essays of the Untimely Meditations were you thinking of most? I've only read the second and third.

Ah, Petrarch--rotten poet, but so inspiring to others.