It is hard to see why any sensible person would enrol in a humanities degree at the present time. A common argument used to be that the humanities taught students how to think. A science degree transmitted knowledge in a particular discipline, while history, philosophy or English inculcated capacities of critical thinking that could be applied in many areas of life. The humanities embodied a freedom of mind that would be useful whatever students did after they left university.
This is not an argument that can be made today. “Critical thinking” has become a cluster of progressive dogmas, which are handed down as if they were self-evident truths. Students learn an intra-academic argot – intersectionality, hetero-normativity and the like — that has zero utility in the world in which they will go on to live.
They also learn that disagreement in ethics and politics is illegitimate. Anyone who departs from the prevailing progressive consensus is not just mistaken but malevolent. When enforced in universities, this is a prescription for censorship and conformism. What is being inculcated is not freedom of mind, but freedom from thought. Losing the ability to think while attending a university may be considered a misfortune. Incurring fifty or sixty thousand pounds of debt in order to do so looks like carelessness.
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The decline of the humanities is one of the defining facts of the age. Yet there has not been a great deal of serious discussion of its causes. In the Eighties and Nineties, an influential critique argued that universities had been co-opted by “tenured radicals”—the title of a provocative book published by the American art critic Roger Kimball in 1990.
As Kimball saw it, an academic nomenklatura controlled sectors of higher education and used its position to attack the values of the societies that funded it. Any version of a western canon was discredited, and its origins in classical philosophy and Jewish and Christian religion disparaged.
There is some truth in this critique. Though they remain ineffably redolent of the bourgeoisie at their most sanctimonious and self-deceiving, academic radicals define themselves by their opposition to the bourgeois civilisation that produced and now supports them. Kimball’s critique also identifies a key feature of tenured radicalism: it is self-reproducing. Through their powers of patronage, the nomenklatura decide the prospects of new entrants, and exclude anyone who deviates from the party line. No young scholar who fails to genuflect to it has any prospect of a future in academic life.
What this analysis fails to explain is the appeal of the ideology this class has adopted. Marx may be worth re-reading in a time when capitalism is entering another of its recurrent crises. But how could a turgid mishmash of Heidegger, Derrida and Lacan have gained such a stranglehold on institutions of higher learning?
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The metamorphosis in liberalism that has occurred over the past generation has played a role. From being a philosophy of tolerance aiming at peaceful coexistence among divergent world-views, it has become a persecutory orthodoxy that tolerates no view of the world other than its own. If the contemporary academy is hostile to liberal values as they used to be understood, one reason is the rise of a new liberalism that dismisses these values as phoney and repressive. But this only pushes the question one step back. Why has illiberal liberalism become so popular?
Part of the answer may be found in a short, strange and inexhaustibly interesting volume that was published nearly a century and a half ago. The chief subject of Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), is the nature of Greek tragedy, which he interpreted as an art-form that overcame the lack of meaning in human life by reframing it as an aesthetic spectacle.
The most celebrated aspect of Nietzsche’s interpretation is his claim that Greek drama turns on an interaction between an Apollonian striving after reason and order, and a Dionysian yearning for chaos and frenzy. But the most important section of the book, to my mind, comes when he applies his account of Greek tragedy to the secular faith of modern times, which he calls “Socratism” — the belief that the world becomes properly intelligible only when the human mind has rid itself of myth.
“Socrates is the archetype of the theoretical optimist,” Nietzsche writes, “who in his faith in the explicability of things, attributes the power of a panacea to knowledge and science, and sees error as the embodiment of evil.” Later in the book, Nietzsche asks the reader to imagine “abstract man, without the guidance of myth — abstract education, abstract morality, abstract justice, the abstract state…then we have our present age, the product of that Socratism bent on the destruction of myth”.
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The end-result of Socratism for the West is “a resolute process of secularization, a break with the unconscious metaphysics of its previous existence”. In turn, the triumph of Socratism leads to a violent rebirth of mythic thinking, inspiring the frenzied totalitarian movements that Nietzsche saw coming and which, ironically, he was blamed for inspiring.
Writing when Europe’s high bourgeois civilisation seemed unshakably secure, Nietzsche foresaw the present crisis of the humanities. Deconstruction is Socratism in an extravagant form, an all-out effort to subvert the myths and metaphysics that underpinned western civilisation — not least Socrates’s own faith in reason. At crucial moments, as Nietzsche notes, Socrates turned to his daimonion — a “divine voice” that enabled him to be a true philosopher — for guidance. (In 1952, the great Irish classicist E.R. Dodds presented a similar view in The Greeks and the Irrational, where the founder of western philosophy is presented as an heir to Greek shamanism.)
Like Plato, Socrates was the mouthpiece of a mystical faith. It was this—not any process of ratiocination—that allowed him to assert that the true and the good were one and the same. The ideology of deconstruction aims to demystify this Socratic faith, along with everything else. As Nietzsche understood, once Socratism knocks away its metaphysical foundations it becomes a type of nihilism.
If Nietzsche’s diagnosis is even half-way sound, some awkward conclusions follow for the future of the humanities. Many lament the collapse of standards of truth and evidence in higher education. But what is their remedy? To restore rationality, no doubt. It seems not to have occurred to them that this may not be possible. For the most part, those who lament the condition of the humanities are evangelists for the Socratism that has led the humanities to where they are now. For these latter-day exponents of ‘Enlightenment liberal values’, rationality can be restored by an act of will. If enough people make a commitment to being reasonable, all will be well.
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Liberals of this kind remind one of J.M. Keynes’s comment on the “thin rationalism” of his friend Bertrand Russell. In an elegiac talk to a Bloomsbury Group audience, in 1938, published after his death as My Early Beliefs, Keynes observed: “Bertie sustained simultaneously a pair of opinions ludicrously incompatible. He held that human affairs are carried on in a most irrational fashion, but that the remedy was quite simple and easy, since all we had to do was carry them on rationally.”
Keynes thought Russell’s rationalism shallow because it skated over the passions that are the deciding forces in human events. Having been an official at the Versailles Peace Conference where the future of Europe after the First World War was supposed to be determined, he knew how emotions of resentment and revenge could overwhelm reasoned policy-making. But there is a deeper reason why rationality cannot be regained by reinstating the intellectual standards of the past.
The Enlightenment faith in reason to which many critics of the humanities would like to return was based on the belief that, once it had discarded myth, humankind would devote itself to the pursuit of knowledge through science. This was the “theoretical optimism” that Nietzsche discerned at the bottom of Europe’s bourgeois civilisation.
But “abstract man” proved to be an illusion, and during the 20th century, science became a vehicle for myths that made mass extermination seem rational. Turning to science as a panacea for evil today means turning a blind eye to the horrendous ends for which science has been deployed. If Nietzsche did nothing else, he predicted Steven Pinker.
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The discomforting truth is that the crisis of the humanities can’t be fixed, for it is part of a much larger malady. The ideology that has captured universities is only an inflated version of that which animates society at large. In both, the myths that sustained civilisation in the past are sacrificed to an idea of progress that is devoid of meaning.
The classical liberal economist F.A. Hayek wrote in The Constitution of Liberty (1960): “Progress is movement for movement’s sake, for it is in the process of learning, and in the effects of having learned something new, that man enjoys the gift of his intelligence.” But what is it that is learnt in the course of this purposeless process? Admirable for the clarity and honesty with which it is stated, Hayek’s idea of progress is as much an expression of nihilism as Derrida’s project of deconstruction.
Nietzsche found no way out from the condition he diagnosed, and it may well be that there is none. The decline of the humanities may be no more than an episode in the decline of the West. The idea that a solution can be found in the academy is silly. A cultural malady that goes all the way back to Socrates is not going to be remedied by anything that is done in floundering 21st-century universities.
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It would be better to admit that the battle there has been lost, and advise young people to get to know the canon by themselves. It will not cost them tens of thousands of pounds to buy a copy of Montaigne’s essays, Emily Dickinson’s poems, Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim or Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, for example. If they want to move beyond western traditions, they can read Dostoevsky’s apocalyptic and hilariously funny Demons, the delightful Chuang-Tzu and dozens of other world classics.
The condition of the humanities has many of the qualities of black comedy. There is currently a campaign underway to have Camille Paglia sacked from the teaching position she has held for 30 years at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia because she has voiced what are considered to be incorrect opinions on a number of currently toxic issues.
As she once playfully boasted, Paglia is “one of the smartest people in the humanities in the world”. She is also one of the most original. Making her own use of Nietzsche’s dichotomy of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, she has dug into the most fundamental sources of the West’s cultural disorder. The power of her analysis is illustrated by the clamour against her, and she may not be surprised at the attempt to unseat her. Nietzsche believed the modern mind has become incapable of recognising tragedy. The same may be true of farce.