Saturday, June 21, 2008

Collapse of the Humanities

~from First Things by Matthew Milliner. A commentary on the current sorry state of higher education. Is there hope that academia can be rescued from its illiberal mindset?
Were the sixties really a golden age when the humanities were “liberated from religion but not yet subordinated to science and specialization”? The statement caused me to wonder. Might there be a connection between such “liberation” and any subsequent subordination? Furthermore, should the collapse of the humanities, wrenched from any transcendent horizon, come as any kind of surprise? The New Criterion leaves the religious aspect of the academic crisis unexplored, the very perspective that provides a measure of hope. There is a new openness in academia to matters religious, and though frequently artificial and always inconsistent, I find in it cause for excitement rather than despair.

I recalled a recent hard-hitting article by the Reformation historian Brad Gregory in an academic journal that finally calls “secular confessional history” to task. Gregory mandates a “thick description,” thicker than the kind famously proposed by anthropologist Clifford Geertz. He unearths the materialist assumptions that unconsciously inform so many of his colleagues and makes a compelling case that historians need to “proceed as if the religious beliefs of their subjects might be true.” Examples of such an “open” methodology, at least in my field of medieval history, are not difficult to find. Thinking along the same lines as Gregory, University of Chicago professor (and recent Guggenheim award recipient) Rachel Fulton writes that medieval historians must “explain what it means to have faith and thus to act in the conviction that there is a reality other than that which may be ‘objectively’ perceived.” Her historiographical approach is nothing less than a declaration of independence from postmodern skepticism. Barbara Newman, a medieval historian at Northwestern, goes even further. She represents a new generation of feminist historians, ones unafraid to trample tired orthodoxies. Thus her rather striking declaration: “It was not because of their commitment to feminism, self-empowerment, subversion, sexuality, or ‘the body’ that [medieval woman] struggled and won their voices; it was because of their commitment to God.”

Or consider art historian Jeffrey Hamburger, who recently called for a reconsideration of neglected theological sources in medieval art history. “The critique of theology,” Hamburger wryly suggests, “must itself be deconstructed.” A keen sensitivity to theology is a mark of all of Hamburger’s scholarship. He takes pains to show that, when pitted against theory, theology–long a domain of sophisticated, multivalent textual engagement–can more than hold its own. Hamburger’s rhetoric is all the more interesting considering his position. Tenured at Harvard, his is not exactly a voice from the margins.

Admittedly, these are only a few voices and all near my field of specialization. But it is hard to imagine any such statements being penned in the “golden age” of the sixties. Today, religious or religiously sensitive students and professors may be the best stewards of the values secular humanism once upheld: human nature, a coherent self, classical virtue, meaningful language, and linear history. If renewal in the academy is coming, it will likely having something to do with faith-friendly faculty.

In his recent address to educators, Pope Benedict XVI touched in advance on many of the points brought up by the latest string of laments. He pointed out that the “crisis of truth,” well documented by the New Criterion, is rooted in a “crisis of faith.” It is therefore no wonder that his faith led to a different and more optimistic conclusion: “Set against personal struggles, moral confusion and fragmentation of knowledge, the noble goals of scholarship and education, founded on the unity of truth and in service of the person and the community, become an especially powerful instrument of hope.”

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