O, the Humanities, ctd.

America recently published commentary on the same report on the humanities that I wrote about this summer. The author, Raymond A. Schroth, SJ, is a long-time teacher and journalist, and he gives a spirited defense of a traditional, literary humanities education.

My experience, on the other hand—after teaching literature for over 40 years and, as editor of the Jesuit higher education magazine Conversations, talking with students and faculty in all 28 Jesuit colleges and universities—is that students are starving intellectually, whether they acknowledge it or not. Few can talk easily about a great book they have read. Mark Edmundson writes in The Chronicle (8/2) that literature is “character forming” and “soul making”—a way of life. Catholic and Jesuit universities, it seems to me, have always taught this. How well we have succeeded is another question.

His examples are mostly literary in nature, and I certainly can't argue with any of them. Obviously I think it's important to read the Aeneid (preferably in Latin), or I wouldn't be teaching it. But as I continue to think about this topic, I wonder if we also need to expand our definition of what constitutes a humanities education.

Many people define the humanities by giving examples: The Mona Lisa, James Joyce's Ulysses, the history of the French Revolution. But at the broadest level, the humanities are a study of what makes us human, the study of human culture. Art, literature, and history are certainly some of the best, most obvious examples of this, which is why most defenses of the humanities, including my own, focus on those topics. But if we stick with that broad definition, should there not be other lenses through which to better understand the human condition?

For example, I have read few defenses of the humanities that mention film. But for the last century, movies have been an important part of our culture. The same can be said about music, dance, or photography. When I think about human culture today, technology plays a tremendous role. The connections that people are making were impossible just twenty years ago, but are an important part of our world. The technologies themselves, the hardware and the software, that enable these connections play an important role too. Shouldn't a humanities education include these aspects of human culture as well? Even classes that focus on the mechanics of app design or filmmaking have room for humanities-inspired lessons on the impact of those disciplines, and the examples of greatness that have come before.

I suppose my definition of the humanities is based on what the humanities are not. The humanities are not "useful" in the traditional sense of the word. They are not job training. They are simply a study of what makes us human. Fr. Schroth is right–Jesuit schools have a history of valuing this kind of education, and I certainly hope there are always students who value reading Vergil. The modern focus on "utility" carries for us the risk of losing touch with an important part of our heritage. But at the same time, we must not see the humanities themselves as static and unchanging. The focus on our shared humanity is what's important; the Aeneid or the Mona Lisa or Citizen Kane are simply vehicles for that reflection.