09 April 2014

Dale Coulter and The (Mis)Place Of The Humanities In Higher Education

Go here to read a piece at the First Things blog by Regent School of Divinity colleague Dale Coulter titled "Humanities and the Shaping of Life." Coulter applies to contemporary higher education a critique similar to the one I have made of contemporary neo-classical contract theory and libertarian political theory. (Check here for some of my comments about contracts and here for some thoughts on political theory.)

On to the place of the humanities in contemporary higher education. In the classical past, in Coulter's words, the goal or end of  of "the humanities" was that they they "should lead to human flourishing." For Christians, the purpose of study of the biblical texts ("salutary teaching") was, "in the words of Paul," to produce "piety or godliness, which gives rise to a moral life grounded upon the intrinsic social nature of human existence." In other words, the purpose of humane studies on either the Classical or Christian account was to assist one in becoming a better person.

All has changed in modern times as we can see in Harvard's recent apologia for the humanities. No longer is the purpose of the study of the great (and not-so-great) texts of a culture to promote human flourishing much less piety or godliness. Of course not; how could any modern person think such antiquated thoughts? After all, we now know that there is no end or goal of life that is particularly human. Instead--and here I'll let Coulter himself summarize Harvard's explanation of the value of the humanities--
There are three traditions derived from the humanities that inculcate this capacity, according to the report. The first is a tradition of criticizing errors in texts and approaches to historical periods commensurate with Renaissance humanism. Like their forebears, classicists must practice a “suspicious hermeneutic.”
The second is a tradition of “disinterested, artistic enjoyment” that moves beyond the ideological content conveyed by any work of art to an appreciation of the beauty and form of the piece. Art can be re-appropriated for its aesthetic value once freed from the ideology it conveys. The third is a tradition that seeks to re-appropriate the past in the service of identity politics. Through the lens of gender, race, and sexual orientation, the past can be re-read in a way that creates “communities of resistance,” which can become “liberating, transformative social movements.”
In short, we moderns should study the work of the Western tradition with an attitude simultaneously of suspicion and haughty disinterest all the while in the service of identity politics. Heaven help us. If that's the how and why of the humanities we should stop reading literature, listening to great music, and observing serious art right now! No wonder folks want STEM degrees. At least science, technology, engineering, and math are premised and practiced on a foundational belief that there is truth out there and that we can come to know it.

Harvard's report entirely misconceives the place of the humanities in education. Instead of giving us tools of deconstruction and reconstruction of sexual identity groups, the humanities can serve as pieces of the puzzle by which we come to understand what it means to be human beings, created in the image of God, horribly fallen into sin, but destined to glorify our Creator and Redeemer.

No comments:

Post a Comment