The United States has never been good at producing public intellectuals, but new trends in the present century bring our country’s public discourse even further from anything one might dare to call the life of ideas. As in every other domain of public life, a peculiar political polarization has occurred: On the right (and among the defenders of classical liberalism, “reason,” and the “Enlightenment”), the guiding lights are coming from psychology departments, or from that strange hybrid zone between psychology and business. Steven Pinker, Jonathan Haidt, and others are thus put on a public stage and expected to hold forth on all that is human, but their model of the human is one that for the most part extends back no further than the late 19th century, and for the most part takes us as bundles of instincts nudged this way and that by stimuli. They are not humanists, in the significant sense of this term that extends back to the Renaissance, and yet they are adjuncting as humanists for a culture that does not know to expect any better.
Meanwhile, on the progressive left, the academic fields that are churning out public figures are even more tenuously rooted in humanistic tradition. Roxane Gay, Robin DiAngelo, Freddie deBoer (who is great when he’s talking about anything other than his academic specialty), and many others first entered public life on the basis of their advanced credentials in the field of education, or of scholarly work focused on what happens in the classroom. I suppose if we were reading Rousseau or Dewey on the subject (just as if we were reading William James on psychology), we would maintain our connection to humanism. But this is not typically what goes on in graduate schools of education. There you are more likely to find books with titles like How College Affects Students: 21st-Century Evidence That Higher Education Works, to cite the title of one of Mayhew’s co-authored works.
As far as I’m concerned, universities are where you go to learn how to read Akkadian cuneiform tablets, the scansion of Ovid, and stuff like that. Of course, someone has to think about how to actually run the universities, and the laudable principle of self-government would seem to require that at least some academics devote a portion of their energies to compiling data on how well higher education works, though ironically this principle is being eroded at the same time as we are witnessing the proliferation of new epicycles of academic self-reflexivity.
Mine is to some extent an echo of a line Stanley Fish was pushing for a while (Fish’s postmodernism now appears positively humanistic in comparison with what followed it): A university is a place for discovering universes in grains of sand, drawing these universes out for others to see, enriching society by connecting to and preserving bonds with things that lie beyond our society (Mexica temple architecture, quasars, Great Zimbabwe, whales). The large-scale turn to identity-focused topics and the self-referential preoccupation with the university as an object of study — not the history of the university, but the university in its current administrative functions and social dimensions — are a betrayal of the legacy of humanism. I have resolved to spend the rest of my career, come what may, trying to preserve what I can of its surviving threads, like some sombre Isidore of Seville in the very last moments of late antiquity.
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