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The Joy Of Start Points

June 21, 2013, 9:13 pm

David Brooks clearly hadn’t read Ben Schmidt’s excellent analysis of the humanities crisis before writing today’s op-ed piece. Brooks argues that the humanities are going downhill because their practitioners have lost all passion for the topic:

The humanist’s job was to cultivate this ground — imposing intellectual order upon it, educating the emotions with art in order to refine it, offering inspiring exemplars to get it properly oriented.

Somewhere along the way, many people in the humanities lost faith in this uplifting mission. The humanities turned from an inward to an outward focus. They were less about the old notions of truth, beauty and goodness and more about political and social categories like race, class and gender. Liberal arts professors grew more moralistic when talking about politics but more tentative about private morality because they didn’t want to offend anybody.

They have moved away from the eternal verities of western civilization and into an obsession with the relativist interests of identity politics. It’s not an original argument – Allan Bloom called and wants a citation, at very least – but I want to point out one critical element of Brooks’ construction of the piece. He talks about how, a “half-century” ago, enrollments in the humanities were much higher. That has the advantage of being a neat number, but it also allows Brooks to escape a much more complex reading of the situation. 1963 was before Vietnam, before the upheaval of the 1960s, and before the rise of race, class, and gender as critical modes of analysis. For Brooks, 1963 was perhaps the last pure moment before the humanities project was lost in a swelter of competing claims.

And, yet, awkwardly for Brooks’ argument, humanities enrollments increased after 1963. The chaos of the 1960s – of Vietnam, of the struggle over civil rights – saw the highest enrollment in humanities disciplines in the post-war era. This surge came at just the moment when the study of humanities turned away (in Brooks’ conception) from the study of eternal verities. Rather than being turned off by the horrors of moralizing about political and social categories, undergraduates seemed drawn to it. Whatever is going on with the humanities in higher education, it’s not the simple Manichean story of decline that David Brooks so desperately wants to tell.

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P.S. But, really, just read Ben’s post.
P.P.S. I know, Brooks, right? But Tom Friedman is actually reporting from the field at the moment, which is when he writes marginally decent pieces so, you know…

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