Battling Classicists; Saving Souls

I was in the process of writing my notes on Adler’s The Battle of Classics (OUP 2020), when I came across Sententiae Antiquae (SA)’s review blog. Now my notes have become a three-legged stool where two legs (Adler, SA) are decidedly longer and sturdier than the short spindly leg that the following notes constitute.

the two-legged stool of Planudes' thoughts
the two-legged stool of Planudes’ thoughts

Adler’s main point is that we cannot defend the humanities by talking about skills (e.g. critical thinking); instead, we must focus on content. Adler supports this claim with a series of case studies that make up the majority of the book. These case studies incite the most substantive critique from SA, who focuses on Adler’s failure to address properly important issues such as race, gender and class.

“No history of the humanities that refuses to examine how our academic disciplines have related to colonialism, nationalism, gender and sex discrimination, and structural racism has any hope of saving our institutions, much less humanity itself.” (SA)

The historical analysis in this book is indeed shallow: Adler sacrificed a deeper, more nuanced historical analysis because he narrow focused on how a “skills” defense fails, and that we need a “content” defense.

Nowhere does this focus and Adler’s reticence in giving his opinions prove more damaging than in his discussion of Babbitt. Adler exploits Babbitt and his “New Humanism” to model a defense of humanities based on content. Yet, Adler does not give enough critical context to clearly separate himself from Babbitt, and SA shows just how problematic Babbitt is. Still, it is unfair of SA to make Babbitt stand in for Adler, even if Adler’s lack of critical distance encourages it.

SA is occasionally ungenerous in response to Adler and this obscures the extent to which the two are in broad agreement.

Simply put, humanists either believe that their subjects can help shape students’ souls, or they are not humanists (Adler, 85)

At some level, I do deeply agree with the plea that we should focus on how the humanities can make us better humans (SA)

[humanities exist to provide] “that greater benevolence towards the self, and others.” (SA)

The urgent revival of the humanist classroom should not only center around the study of great works but also encourage us to pioneer ways to fixate less on scholarly minutiae and focus more on ethics. (Adler, 218; emphasis mine)

Both agree that the final purpose of the humanities is ethical. Both dislike pedantry and scholarly minutiae (personally, I like both, but that’s a different issue). My reading of Adler leads me to suspect that he would find himself in general agreement with SA’s definitions, if not necessarily with his emphases or tactics. Where is the difference?

SA sees Adler as advocating for the power of great works to produce in themselves the desired ethical effects.

In turning to Babbitt, Adler finds the key to saving all of the humanities, namely, centering on the objective capacity for certain texts to bring us wisdom. (SA)

Adler never uses the word “objective” in this sense. But Adler does think that texts matter, that certain masterworks “explore life’s great questions with humane insight” (Adler, 210). This approach does center the action of the text itself whereas SA sees the capacity as innate.

I just think this is a capacity we bring to the texts as subjects ourselves rather than magical qualities a set of texts may grant to us with the right shamans as our guides. (SA)

Well, if we already have the capacity, do we need texts at all, even less a classroom? If we are going to defend the humanities’ classroom (and let’s be clear to ourselves: it is our institutional position as teachers of humanities that we are defending, not some abstract, and indefinable, humanism), then we must argue that there is something in the experience of studying humanistic content in the context of a community of readers led by an expert (I won’t say “shaman”) that matters.

In my heart, I think that we need every part in the classroom: the right (εἰς καιρὸν) material, the right (εἰς καιρὸν) group, the right (εἰς καιρὸν) expert; it is the community of a classroom that has the greatest chance of producing whatever it is that the best humanistic teaching can produce. None of this is objective — it is, rather, deeply subjective, — and certainly, it is rare. “To be fair,” I don’t think Adler or SA would fundamentally disagree with what I just said.

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I find myself unable to follow Adler for a more fundamental reason: the skill/content distinction that his analysis requires.

I have long been dissatisfied when I hear humanities described as inculcating transferable skills. Not that they don’t, but that neither do these skills necessarily follow from humanities’ classrooms nor are they unique to the humanities. How could they be, if they are transferable? But Adler does not really make a distinction between transferable skills and disciplinary specific skills, which is quite odd. The problem goes even deeper, however, because it is not clear what is a skill and what is a content. Although Adler rejects a skills defense of humanities, his defense of language is a skill defense.

For the same reason, humanists must insist on a robust language requirement for all undergraduates to provide to them the experience of reading at least part of one great work in a language other than English. Such an experience helps reinforce both the familiar and unfamiliar aspects of other cultures and, that is to say, emphasizes the cardinal importance of the One and the Many to personal and civilizational flourishing. (Adler, 217)

Languages are reduced to a skill and apparently limited in value to reading a great work in a non-native language. I disagree strongly with the implication that only languages with a literature are worth learning. Even so, most language classes are simply not structured as a means to a textual end. Most language classes take a communicative focus, aiming to allow learners to speak to native speakers, to understand and to make themselves understood. So, are languages a skill or a content? What is the “content” of history? What are the “skills?” Does history even belong in the humanities? Or, are the humanities (in fact, all areas of study I can think of) simultaneously skills and content?

Thus, although I have sympathy for the problems entailed transferable-skills centered defense, Adler’s skill-content distinction ends up making things worse, or at least more confusing.

The sciences encourage a different view of education’s value than do the classical humanities: first and foremost, they hinge on the creation of new knowledge. The Italian humanists and their heirs promoted a curriculum that foregrounded the wisdom of the past as a means to shape students’ characters. Thus the scientific and humanistic outlooks — the former forward-looking and bent on new discoveries, the latter traditionalistic and focused on the inculcation of received knowledge — would naturally be at crosshairs. (Adler, 59)

Although this may be an explicit goal of scientific research, much science teaching focuses on transmitting current (received) knowledge. This shorthand distinction between science and humanities reoccurs in similar books, for example, Delbanco’s College: What It Was, Is and Should Be:

This way of evaluating the worth of knowledge is consonant with how science works, and it poses a severe challenge to the humanities — at least to the extent that | humanists remain concerned with preserving truth by re-articulating it rather than advancing truth by discarding the old in favor of the new. (p.94–5)

All the disciplines, I think, are engaged in knowledge creation. And classrooms are generally concerned with the preserving, or better, transmitting current knowledge. Many introductory science courses require students to master a large amount of content and labs often focus on reproducing known experiments.

It is perhaps understandable that tracts marshaling arguments supporting the humanities work to distinguish them from other areas of study, particularly science. And at a fundamental, disciplinary level, there are differences (e.g. qualitative or quantitative methods, historical, presentist, or universal perspectives, etc.). At the same time, when I have visited the classrooms of my science and social science colleagues, I did not find them so different from my classes. More to the point, when engaged in defenses of the humanities, it seems to me rhetorically more valuable to stress how our classroom and educational goals are similar and complementary rather than part of two, or even three alien cultures. Humanities are not so unique.

Stanley Fish is dismissed by Adler because Fish thinks that moral instruction is outside the purview of higher education. Yet, he comes closest to describing what most college classrooms actually look like.

“College and university teachers can (legitimately) do two things: (1) introduce students to bodies of knowledge and traditions of inquiry that had not previously been part of their experience; and (2) equip those same students with the analytical skills — of argument, statistical modeling, laboratory procedure — that will enable them to move confidently within those traditions and to engage in independent research after a course is over.”

I would add a third element, that is perhaps less common, but is just as important: (3) encourage students to see how this knowledge applies to them and their world. Fish’s description covers many fields. Again, let us remember that what needs defending is not the humanities, it is the role of the humanities’ classroom in institutions of learning. The arts, the social sciences, the “hard” sciences, mathematics, humanities are natural allies, if we can be brought to see what we share, how we are similar, how little of what we all teach is utilitarian.

So, here is my take on the defense of the humanities: there isn’t one. In a society defined by utility and efficiency, there is simply no good justification for what I do in the classroom. While there may be some utility, it is inefficient. I also do not believe humanities teaching makes people better — too much evidence to the contrary. In short, I am not convinced that they have a purpose beyond themselves. If my position in an institution of learning has value, it will have to be the decidedly non-utilitarian, inefficient one of being valuble in itself (begged the question there; hope no one notices). Not many will find it so, I can readily admit, but I can’t see how I claim much more.

The online pseudonym of the other online pseudonym Leopold “Poldy” Bloom. Really, tho, who I am doesn’t matter.

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