That is what I want to discuss today. To lay my cards on the table a bit, I’m going to argue that the kind of liberal justifications of liberal education I grew up with are no longer effective, and that teachers of humanities need a different way of defending the value of what we do and love. I think we can find such a way if we go back to the very beginning of the humanities in the mid-fourteenth century, which is also the beginning of the Renaissance. The Renaissance can teach us how to make a case for the study of old books that is compatible with the values of a pluralist society. The humanist literati of the Renaissance, beginning with Petrarch, taught that the humanities can provide the moral discipline or soulcraft that is needed to produce the kind of rulers and citizens necessary for successful government. The humanities—rightly understood, taught, and practiced as a way of life—can cultivate human moral and intellectual excellence, the qualities our tradition refers to as virtue.
Many people now are beginning to see that virtue is precisely what is needed in the crisis of contemporary civilizations that stretches from North and South America and Europe into India and China. That crisis, as I see it, is caused by a paralysis of moral leadership and the inability of demoralized, globalized elites and elite culture generally to command the respect of non-elite citizens in nation-states. It is a crisis that bears a remarkable resemblance to the civilizational crisis of the fourteenth century that brought the humanities into existence in the first place. It also resembles in some respects the crisis of the communist elite in China, where there has been for some years a movement to revive the Confucian tradition, in part with the hope of providing a more acceptable moral basis for governance.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor