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Narrowing visions in the humanities

A recent essay by Heather Macdonald in City Journal is getting lots of attention. Her piece was on the narrowing horizons of those who seek to teach the humanities in our places of higher learning. She ruffled feathers, and wrote this zinger of a response to one of her critics. Here is an excerpt:

…in contrast to the narcissism of today’s identity studies, the humanist tradition was founded “on the all-consuming desire to engage with the genius and radical difference of the past.” The Renaissance humanists were attracted to Classical Rome precisely because it differed so much from their contemporary Rome, with its papal intrigues and corrupted Latin; they were acutely aware of historical change and developed the seminal methods of textual scholarship to overcome the effects of time on historical and literary sources. It is instead the contemporary identity theorist who lacks an appreciation for the specificity of the past, determined as he is to expound on his own or others’ victimhood rather than lose himself in a world that may not mirror his narrow obsessions.

And that surely is the point. Western civilisation was reinvigorated when the lessons and musings of the Ancients were rediscovered. So much so that the “Grand Tour” was considered part of an educated person’s life, albeit only one that the rich could then afford. True progressives should want, and have wanted, this sort of grand tour of the intellect to be made available to all. No educated person would pass through life ignorant of Cicero; Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius or Lucretius. Instead, however, some of today’s educators would happily Balkanize us all inside narrow, self-regarding “victim groups”. (This is not just a fault of the academic Left, by the way – there are variants of this on the hard right, as far as I can see, when such folk fret about the impact of “alien cultures”).

Tim Sandefur also has comments on this topic:

This is true in other arts, too. There’s good poetry, sculpture, painting, and music out there, but the artistic elite—indoctrinated in postmodernism and identity politics—largely ignore those who produce it, on the grounds that it appeals to the common man and is therefore “commercial” (i.e., capitalist; i.e., evil) or “irrelevant” because it does not express the identity-politics agenda that is acceptable within that elite. This might at first seem paradoxical, since the political roots of this movement are in Marxism, which claimed to reject class divisions and to create a universal-humanity state. But just as Marxist societies become rigidly hierarchical—with a privileged nomenklatura on top and the faceless mass of disposable proles below—so in the art world, there is an elite of aesthetic correctness…and the consumers and consumer-friendly artists who are ignored when they are not ridiculed. Marxism was and remains a disease of the elite. Based on contempt for bourgeois society and bourgeois virtues, it has never recognized that these virtues are actually the desires of all mankind. Beauty is the most fragile of bourgeois virtues. It is always thought the most disposable by leaders with more militant goals.

I corrected the name of the publication to City Journal. My goof.

38 comments to Narrowing visions in the humanities

  • Paul Marks

    A university education used to be about broadening (and deepening) the mind. Making the mind (the person) more “liberal” in the old sense.

    Now a university education in the “humanities” is about twisting the mind – making it more narrow and shallow. Making the mind (the person) more “liberal” in the modern sense,

    And, yes, the Frankfurt School Marxists (and those influenced by them – the Critical Theory crowd and so on) do this on purpose.

    As do those “on the right” in the sense of a narrow theocratic or nationalist education – that denies universal principles and universal truth.

    There is no such thing as “capitalist reason” or “proletarian reason” – there is just reason.

    And there is no such thing as “Jewish reason” and “Nordic reason” – there is just reason.

    Universal truth, universal principles – true enlightenment.

    This should be the goal of a truly liberal education.

  • Jack Leonard

    That’s City Journal (US), not City Limits (UK), the anti-Time Out where Steve Bell cut his teeth.

  • Mr Ed

    Why not simply scrap the ‘Humanities’ and stick to science and engineering in Universities as a modest proposal on the route to righteousness?

  • Johnathan Pearce (London)

    Jack, fixed. My bad.

  • bloke in spain

    I’m really not sure about this version of history. It looks like history from an intellectual point of view.
    From the ordinary person’s point of view, the body of useful knowledge was transmitted via the Guilds, almost complete, across the Dark Ages. It was the universities were trapped in the dead end of dead Greeks until the Enlightenment. Euclid & Pythagoras are all very interesting to scholars. The applied math, got things, done went on independent of scholars’ interest, using exactly the same principles.

    “A university education used to be about broadening (and deepening) the mind.”

    It would be wonderful to see some actual evidence of that. Universities have seemed to be doing their level best to monopolise learning & restricting its breadth & dissemination for most of history.

  • hennesli

    I would strongly disagree with Tim Sandefurs linking of so called avarnt garde art with Marxism.
    Actual Marxist states, such as the USSR, tend to produce art which is kitsch and rigidly conservative in taste,(the Soviets named their official artistic style ‘socialist realism’).

    Any look at the history of ‘modern art’ will show that it has always flourished most in the capitalist west.

  • Mr Ed

    hennesli: Have you considered that the promotion of the ‘avant-garde’ as opposed to the ‘vanguard of the Proletariat’ is simply a device to undermine the cultural basis of civilisation, as some allege? And would it surprise you if Marxists were prepared to lie and deceive as a tactic?

    Have you not noticed the celebration of vileness as being a common thread?

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    I know that academia bashing is very fashionable indeed, but honestly – I don’t see all the Marxist bogeymen everyone keeps going on about. For the last 9 years I have worked in one of “the Humanities”, specifically Psychology, and I have never seen any attempt to make the students more narrow and shallow in their thinking. With the exception of the occasional nod to political correctness, the subject matter of the courses at my university deal exclusively with, wait for it…. Psychology! Politics of any sort, including Marxism, just doesn’t come into it. We try to teach them facts relating to Psychological research, and try to develop critical thinking skills with regard to the interpretation of that research. I for one am delighted when one of my students starts drawing conclusions and seeing connections they have not been taught. More generally we try to teach basic comprehension and communication abilities. I have never turned any of my students into Marxists.

    I can only speak for one discipline at one university, but truthfully I think you folks are fighting a straw man here. Some subjects are probably better than others, and some Universities are probably better than others – but I don’t think academia is the monolithic soviet bloc some here seem to think it is. Academia, like many professions, has been absorbed by the state. And like other professions that have undergone the same fate, fear of a loss of funding creates a culture of general approval for government funded projects of all sorts. To call it Marxism is a massive overstatement.

    As to abolishing humanities disciplines altogether, while I would clearly like to retain the possibility of work and accordingly my view should be taken with a pinch of salt, and while I wouldn’t deign to suggest anyone should be required to fund it, calls for its abolition always remind me somewhat of The Artilleryman in Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds – digging a hole in the dirt with visions of the grand society he’s going to build, where no one wastes time on things like poetry and focusses solely on science so they can build their own fighting machines….

    Studying Plato, Hume and John Stuart Mill when I was an undergraduate changed my life. I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss such teaching.

  • bloke in spain

    “Actual Marxist states, such as the USSR, tend to produce art which is kitsch and rigidly conservative in taste”
    Ever considered why?
    The possibility arty farty intellectuals are OK at putting paint on canvass or words on paper but are mostly bugger all use when it comes to the nasty bloody business of revolution. They’d still be talking about it. And the people who kick & claw their way over the palace barricades & plant the red flag on the roof “know good art when they see it” & preferably with some half naked women or kittens in a basket if Mum’s likely to be round.

  • Mr Ed

    JV, I was asking for a gesture in the proposal, and if people wish to pay to study Marxist drivel, they shood be free to do so. I agree that some people seem to imagine that Marxist influence is everywhere, perhaps not seeing the vast swathes of everyday life removed from politics, and not seeing how scientists plough on towards the truth regardless. Lysenko pretty much did for Marxist genetics.

    Of course, he who pays the piper calls the tune, and the buskers know what sort of tunes to sing when the paymaster is looking. I recall having a discussion with some University colleagues as student numbers were ramped up in the early 1990s, a Chief Technician said that government funding for students was going up but not per capita to keep up with numbers planned. i mischievously asked why we should take government funding, but that was a non-starter.

    As for the ‘Humanities’, my unyielding objection to them is that they lack the cogency of science, and might be whatever anyone says they are.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    It is a matter of debate as to whether Psychology is part of the Humanities or not. Some Universities will group it thus, but many will move it off to its own division, sometimes with its ugly sister Sociology. But I can tell you, for the most part Psychology is a science. Some branches adhere to the scientific method more strongly than others, some are more honest than others – but for the most part it is fairly methodologically rigorous.

    Although that said, the fact that no-one proscribes what, for example, Philosophy is, could be viewed as a strength rather than a weakness. There’s no-one stopping an opportunistic lecturer from making Bastiat, Thoreau, Mill, Mises and even Rand required reading. In a free market, you should be able to shop for a course that appeals to your interests.

  • Clovis Sangrail

    @Bloke In Spain “It was the universities were trapped in the dead end of dead Greeks until the Enlightenment. Euclid & Pythagoras are all very interesting to scholars.”
    With very great respect, that just isn’t true. Arabic universities in the early Middle Ages and then back to Europe thereafter for developments in Maths (Newton was at Cambridge and definitely pre-Enlightenment, Euler at St Petersberg and ditto). Not the universities unalloyed of course, but very much part of the development of Maths. Much (but not all) applied maths from outside the universities has been pretty shaky/flaky.

    Also, if we want to talk about the “dead end of dead Greeks”, what about the atomic theory? Not a bad idea for some dead-end Greeks.

    I have to stop or I’ll have trouble cleaning up the spittle.

  • rantingkraut

    JV: I largely share your impression of psychology (based on a BSc only) but would class it as a social science with a strong dose of neurobiology. (Some social psychologists seem to have largely surrendered to the social constructivist approach dominant in the humanities, but the rest is more fact based than most people think.)
    On the development of the humanities: Bruce Bawer (in “The Victims’ Revolution”) makes a similar assessment as Heather MacDonald. The situation really does seem to be different in the various identity studies and similar re-branded sociology courses.

  • Mr Ed

    When I hear the word ‘neuroscience’ I reach for my water pistol, to p*ss on fake science.

  • rantingkraut

    JV: Can you elaborate? I’m vaguely aware of people getting carried away with fMRI studies, but fake science sounds rather strong.

  • bloke in spain

    Ah, those educated Arabs turn up again. Amazing how they were one day chasing goats round sand dunes & the next discovering chemistry.
    I live in ̶C̶a̶r̶t̶h̶a̶g̶e̶,̶I̶b̶e̶r̶i̶a̶,̶̶ S̶p̶a̶i̶n̶,̶ ̶T̶h̶e̶ ̶C̶a̶l̶i̶p̶h̶a̶t̶e̶,̶ Oh we’re back to Spain again, aren’t we? Do you really believe every time we had a change of name we had a change of people? There’s people here who’s ancestors watched the Minoans sail past.
    The heads on the coins change every time a new lot of thugs gets to throw their weight about. And when they need something done, they ask the people who know how to do it. Because they themselves know damn all. And the same people get asked every time. The ones don’t get their heads on coins.
    Do you really think any practical person ever came up with anything as asinine as the four elements? Whilst men in togas were waffling about atoms, men in aprons were learning to smelt iron & later make steel. Building great palaces with soaring arches. Creating the world the rulers & scholars lived in. Building a ship starts where constructing circles on parchment leaves off. And they even had to stop & make the parchment for them.

  • Dom

    As to what is happening in American universities, I think the last word comes down to the group of 88 at duke university. Look at the Durham in Wonderland blog.

  • Clovis Sangrail

    @bloke in spain “Do you really think any practical person ever came up with anything as asinine as the four elements?” Well yes, actually. But why did you not address the issue of Newton? University professor who ground his own lenses for astronomy. I could mention Maxwell also but you’d probably dismiss his equations as complete twaddle.

    Really this is a silly debate but I’ll say two more things.
    First, it may well be that the people who came up with the early elements of algebra and a decimal system were of wider Islam/the Caliphate but not Arab. That wasn’t my point. I was merely pointing to some people in some universities whom you seem for reasons not yet made clear to uniformly despise.

    Second, the men (who weren’t in togas, ‘cos togas’re Roman not Greek) were coming up with ideas which revolutionised the world just as thoroughly (actually more so) than the Enlightenment. Scholastics in Oxford were dropping lead weights and bundles of light stuff from towers back in the C13 and observing that what all the practical people knew about the lead falling faster was wrong.

    You really had a good go at missing the points in what I said and doing the old ad hominem. Did someone piss you off by denigrating those of a practical turn of mind to you?

    My point (badly expressed, no doubt) is that ideas and people of ideas are important and some of these ideas used to come from universities. And lots come from elsewhere.

    That’s it. Sorry I wound you up.

  • Rich Rostrom

    hennesli, Mr. Ed:

    Yes, the hard-core “Reds” rejected avant-garde art. Ironically, the avant-garde artists loved to posture as “Reds”: Picasso was a card-carrying Communist.

    But the underlying sensibility was common: down with the bourgeois! The Bauhaus theory of architecture grew out of Marxist thinking, then imposed through (ironically) the influence of elite tastemakers. Tom Wolfe exposed this in his books From Bauhaus to Our House and The Painted Word. (The latter is about how high art became the fetish of wealthy bourgeois who were wannabe “aides-de-cong”.)

    There may have been another factor, not widely known. In the 1930s, Communist agents of influence such as Willi Muenzenberg supposedly promoted ugly architecture and art as a means of demoralizing capitalist societies.

  • Rich and others: you may find this curious, if you haven’t seen it yet.

  • Mr Ed


    Marvellous, the sheer absurdity of bureaucrats ‘fighting’ other bureaucrats, with other peoples’ money, naturally.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Alisa, the article is quite interesting and has a kind of logic to it. I wonder if it’s true. In any case, thanks. 🙂

    But what’s really interesting about that site is that it carries a photo proving that Shia TheCow looks more like Ché than Ché did. 😉

  • bloke in spain

    @Clovis Sangrail
    Just one point. When do you ever think “what all the practical people knew about the lead falling faster” was true? Think about it for a second. There are numerous activities are based around the knowledge of the properties of falling bodies. It is repeatedly, experimentally confirmed on an everyday basis. What you’re talking about is arriving at an erroneous conclusion by wrong deduction. A special talent taught at universities.

  • bloke in spain

    Although it’s interesting you mention the decimal system. The big mistake in mathematics. Practical people had been using the much superior duodecimal system until the scholars stepped in. As they had positional notation.

  • Clovis Sangrail

    @bloke in spain
    I shouldn’t rise to this, I know, but actually there is a lot of historical evidence stemming, I think, from the very reasonable point that air resistance has a substantial effect (see for example, feathers).
    Re the duodecimal system, who used it notationally? I’m interested to know.
    Also, why is the decimal system a big mistake? I ask in honest perplexity but as a mathematician.

  • Julie near Chicago


    Having registered my utter revulsion at your putting down of my Old Home Number System, I have to tell you that in my ENTIRE life I honestly believe I have only heard ONE other person besides you state the obvious. (And I didn’t hear him, I read him.)

    The few times I dared to bring it up in face-to-face conversation, the other person turned tail and ran, as if to escape the clutches of someone who wears a tinfoil hat and glows in the dark.

    Also, of course base-12 is no bar to positional notation. And you can still do it manually, so to speak–counting on your hands, literally. Ten fingers and two fists. And it still comes to half-the-base per hand.

    You are absolutely right. People keep wanting to go for hexadecimal. (One of the downsides of Modern Technology.) Well, better than base-10. But base-12 has it all. The Babylonians went in for a mite of overkill–I mean, don’t you think base-60 is a bit much? Even if it does include 5 as a natural divisor. But even if you have extreme foot-control, the best you can do is 44. I don’t think anybody wants base-44.

    Anyway, well said, sir! (Or madam, as the case may be, but you don’t sound like a madam. —-I’m too far removed from my Native Roots to know what those racy Spaniards are up to these days. Although they’ve certainly contributed some fine tenors and sopranos.)

  • bloke in spain

    “Also, why is the decimal system a big mistake?”
    Something Julie gets but mathematicians don’t?
    Serious answer, actually. Mathematicians think in numbers. Most people think in quantities. A base divisible by 3 & 4 closer matches the reality of life. How often does anything need dividing by 5? The number 5 & its multiples only have much significance in a decimal system. They’re rarely of interest otherwise

    Rise to it? You won’t be the last.
    If you look at my original comment, it disputes whether the rediscovery of the wisdom of the ancients was responsible for the “reinvigoration” of the Western civilisation. It’s an assumption needs proving not just accepting. What wisdom? Even pre-Renaissance, Western civilisation was much more technically advanced than the ancients.

    If you want to count to base 60 on your hands, Julie, wear a ring.

  • Mr Ed

    I suppose that of we were raised in a base-12 culture, then we would see ’10’ as ‘twelve’, and proveded that we had two more numerals, say ‘/’ and ‘@’ in place of what they represent now, which we recognised as what we now call ’10‘ and ’11‘, then we would operate in base 12 without any problems and base-10 would seem as quirky as base-8 would now.

    It is presumably no accident that within my lifetime, one £ Sterling had 240 pennies, and, (in discussing merits inflation apart), the system was perfectly comprehensible to the populace despite decades of predominant State education.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    I don’t know about base-12, but my understanding was that the metric system was at least partly introduced as part of Napoleonic France’s rejection of all things to do with religion. The imperial system is based on “divine numbers”, 12s, 7s and 3s etc, whereas the metric system is built around the number of man – 10.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Mr. Ed: Quite right.

    bloke: Quite right about the preferability of duodecimal; that’s exactly the way I figure it.

    However, umm … as it happens, my S.B. (U. of Chicago) and M.S. (U. of Illinois) degrees are in math. I thought I was going to be a full-fledged math prof at a top-flight math school, like U.C. or Cal Tech or MIT. Unfortunately, field experimentation in biology interfered with that plan, and shortly the issue of more biscuits on the table-for-three (why 3? It’s a mystery!) arose, so like so many other poor sods I ended up giving computers their marching orders.

    Actually this idea that mathemticians are good arithmeticians, and in particular tend not to think in terms of perceived physical “quantities” (esp. as perceived visually) isn’t necessarily true. What mathematicians do tend to have in common is a good spatial imagination and intuition. Of course the greatest mathematicians have, I suppose, been great at number theory as well, but it’s not clear that even that adds up to stellar do-it-in-your-head-on-the-fly arithmetic skills.

    I should think that number-theorists, at least, would get it, but it always surprised me that the math-and-physics types don’t as a rule. But they all seem to be in thrall of The Metric System, where Ten Is All.

    For base-60, you’d need not “a” ring but 2 rings, one for each hand. (You’d be wise not to use more, so as not to get mixed up on which rings are part of the abacus-set and which are in the ornamentals-set. Where the sets are defined to be disjoint but to include the set of all rings on both hands. *g*) But even then you’d need to go through the entire set of 12 thingamabobbies five times before you moved to the next place, so you’d need a separate counter for that, which means that in essence you’ve got duodecimal–you’re just making it a lot more complicated because you don’t write anything down in place-notation till you’ve gone through the mostly-living abacus 5 times.

  • Why don’t we do in the field?

  • Julie near Chicago

    Although (full disclosure) as chief cook and bottlewasher, I’ve spent quite a bit of time cutting things into halves, thirds (ninths), (sixths), fourths, 12ths, 16ths, etc., by eye. Fifths, not so much. I’m sure practical experience has nothing to do with understanding it *g*, so just sayin’….

  • Julie near Chicago

    Oh, I see. About “a” ring. I forgot about the fists. 🙁 You move it from 1 finger to the next each time you get to 12. Right. (I still say it’d be a pain.)

  • bloke in spain

    JV, Don’t blame M Bonaparte. He got the law enacted so, although metric was the official measure, no Frenchman could be prosecuted for using the old measures. Thus shed advertisers in our chuckaway’s in Dept Nord quote the sizes in pieds.

    Julie. Think positional notation. You can count to 12 on both hands (no zero- you’re counting) 1 ring on one finger takes you from 13 to 24, shift to next finger 25 to 36, … to 60. No thumb ring required. Using only one hand for positional allows a viewer to see what number you’re showing without the problem of reversal.
    I stopped learning started forgetting math in my early teens. Bored me rigid. But I used to do share holding values in shillings, pennies & fractions of in my head. Learned trig to navigate an aircraft in a couple hours. Other bits I learn when I need them. Why learn things you don’t need? Like having the full 184 piece toolkit to put up a picture hook. There’s not enough time to learn what you do.
    “mathematicians do tend to have in common is a good spatial imagination and intuition.”
    Wish I’ve seen some sign of that. I do structure designs & I can’t say the ones I’ve known particularly shine at interpreting plans. On the other hand, nor do architects. I do think people who’ve learned things formally have a greater tendency to think “inside the box”.

  • Julie near Chicago

    bloke — I got that from somebody who was talking about what some “stud(ies?)” showed. And it absolutely resonated with me, because that’s the way I am myself. And actually, math is all about relationships, so….

    I think the study drew its (their?) conclusion from experiments involving the visual cortex. Further deponent sayeth not.

    Your other point — real mathematicians (be they pros or hobbyists) do get a lot of practice thinking “outside the (mathematical) box.” That’s what math, real as opposed to applied (nossir boss, no élitists here *g*), is about! Inventing new mathematical objects; discovering new relationships among mathematical objects; and proofs of objects’ existence or non-existence, and, if they do exist, inventing new proofs of the relationships among them, which is to say, the implications of their (non?)-existence for the system being considered. (Integers, plane triangles, groups, certain sets of barbers, ….) But I’m sure this is much truer in some areas than others. In fields where the Party Line is important, that itself is a bar to discovery and genuine learning (= understanding, in context). And of course you’re right — “learn by doing” is often the best and in fact often the only method.

    We’ll have the discussion about “learn only what you need” vs. “learn as much as you can about anything that interests you, plus what you need to know for physical or social or political survival in your particular circumstances,” which is the fertilized soil that produces the answers (still often vague) to “what do I need to know here?” — we’ll have that conversation some other time. ;>)

    Although I’ll point out one big difference in your physical-toolkit/intellectual-toolkit analogy, which is that the physical tools are distinct and separable. You don’t need both the hammer AND a saw to hang your picture, and they’re separable. You don’t need a shears AND a lug wrench to cut the canvas for a fabric wing.

    But if you’d never heard of a saw, you might be perplexed if you need to nail together two pieces of wood, one of which can’t go “there” because it’s too big to fit. “What do I need to get on with my project? Heck if I know.” Also, the more you know about X, the easier it is to absorb more info on X.

    I’ll shut up now. ;>)

  • Clovis Sangrail

    @bloke in spain and @Julie in Chicago
    I am now convinced that 10 is by no means essential as a base. I grew up being told that it was the natural base because of, you know, digits!

    Positional notation is fantastic progress over the Roman system OTOH.

    Cards on the table-I am a professional research mathematician who was VERY good at arithmetic (not the best; I’ve seen better but never met one), and remains ok.
    Julie is right, many mathematicians are cr*p at arithmetic but all spend their professional lives thinking outside the box and sometimes trying to set fire to it.

    The metric system is not the same as decimal and I agree entirely with bloke, it lacks any sense of human scale. Worst of all is the standard factor of 1000 for name/unit changes.
    Having said that, horsepower smacks of spurious inaccuracy!

    I shall treasure and continue to think about the observation that “mathematicians think in numbers, most people think in quantities”