Fall 2006, Vol. 15, No. 1 (requires Adobe Acrobat)

Humanities, Heal Thyself?

By Helmut Walser Smith

When Camille Paglia wrote “Humanities, Heal Thyself,” an op-ed piece in the New York Times of March 6, 2006, she did not place a question mark at the end. To reinforce the imperative Paglia intended, the New York Times inserted an accompanying image of the letters “V-E-R-I-T-A-S” strung out on a clothesline. With an angry, acerbic pen, Paglia excoriated the Harvard humanities faculty for its “ideological groupthink” and its role in forcing the resignation of its former president, Lawrence H. Summers.

The humanities were the principle victim of her vitriol. We hear about the “monolithic orthodoxies of humanities departments,” “three decades of trendy poststructuralism and postmodernism,” and “the cagey hypocrisy that permeates fashionable campus leftism, which worships diversity in all things except diversity of thought.” Paglia makes clear that the problem is hardly unique to Harvard, “an overpriced campus with an exaggerated reputation.” Rather, it is endemic to humanities departments, and to humanities centers, such as they exist on many American campuses, that they are a cause and not a cure of “the blight.” “Corruption and cronyism became systemic,” Paglia concludes, “spread by the ostentatious conference circuit and the new humanities centers of the 1980s.”

Is she right? For some readers, the political answer will suffice to dismiss the charges. But the deeper question is whether she has hit at a truth with a hammer, striking some uninvolved nerves in the process, doing damage in other ways, but nevertheless smashing at an inconvenient fact—that there is significant ideological conformity in the humanities and that the humanities centers bear some of the blame.

That humanities scholars, like natural scientists, typically think within accepted paradigms is both true and unavoidable. The issue is not whether there is a measure of conformity but whether there is foolish conformity, which we might define as adherence to a scholarly method more concerned with dressing itself up and asserting its belonging to a community than in illuminating, however imperfectly, the truth.

I had supposed that this kind of conformity, the hobgoblin of little minds in whatever discipline, was the target of the stinging barbs of Paglia and other critics. I was therefore surprised to find the attack leveled against my own methodologically conservative field of history.

A week earlier, in the February 25 edition of the New York Times, the columnist John Tierny attacked the Harvard history department as an example of the humanities problem because it supposedly no longer teaches classes on the American Revolution and the U. S. Constitution but instead favors courses on the diaries of ordinary citizens during the revolution and on “American Revolutions”—the latter addressing the American and Haitian Revolutions as “a continuous sequence of radical challenges to established authority.”

I happen to know the book on which the first course is based and, although not a specialist in the field, I know something of the scholarly insight that would bring the American and Haitian Revolutions together. Far from being an example of simple conformity, these are scholarly endeavors of high, innovative order. The book, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale, uses the evidence of a long-ignored diary to transform not only our understanding of women’s work “performed under a bushel," but also of men’s work—indeed, of the whole economy of the community. Beautifully written, based on new or at least overlooked sources, and thoroughly original in the sense that it alters our picture of a whole period, the work is a masterpiece; it is what scholarship, I had always thought, ought to be all about. Then there is the question about the American and the Haitian Revolutions. It has always befuddled me that in a half century of revolts and revolutions, roughly between the Pugachev Revolt of the early 1770s and the South American bids for independence in the 1820s, that the 1776 Revolution of the Thirteen Colonies, which at the time contained less than one percent of the world’s population, should be considered globally sui generis. It is even more startling to see in a New York Times article what I can only understand as an implied denigration, or a willful ignorance, of the importance of the greatest slave revolt of the eighteenth century. It is especially startling since the Haitian Revolution put a question to both the American and the French Revolutions concerning how literally one should interpret the words “that all men are created equal” and that “men are born free and remain equal in rights.” Nor was the Haitian Revolution contemporarily an event of the periphery. The French lost more troops in Haiti than at Waterloo, and, after the Haitian Revolution, the dispersal of revolutionary black troops throughout the Atlantic world—and not the least to the United States—struck fear and panic in all those committed to preserving slave societies. Yet historians and social commentators—not all of course, and certainly neither Henry Adams nor W.E.B. Du Bois—have long ignored the importance of the Haitian Revolution.

In “Who Thinks Abstractly?” Hegel famously pointed out that people who posit whole classes of humans as a timeless category—criminals, for example—have already left the empirical ground of considering people as individuals. Here one might ask who thinks narrowly, and who thinks politically—if we may, for the moment, juxtapose the narrow and the political to the humanistic and the scholarly.

For, indeed, what humanities institutes are supposed to do is to bring scholars together in order to open possibilities of thinking and to follow that thinking along its intellectual, as opposed to political, routes. One doesn’t know where the routes lead. Perhaps there is an affinity between the American Revolution of 1776 and the White Lotus Rebellion of 1796, as both have origins in tax disputes. Perhaps as a result of the comparison the American Revolution will look fortunate and the Chinese brave and principled. Keeping politics out, in this case, means to let the comparison in. There is nothing to heal here. This is humanities scholarship as it ought to be. And to inquire into the political allegiances of humanities professors (as David Horrowitz has done with the surprising result that most humanists vote Democrat) is both to miss the point of scholarship and to wildly overstate the importance of the party-political.

In 1917, as his country and Europe were in the midst of a deep crisis and a war far more disastrous than the one the United States currently finds itself in, Max Weber accepted an invitation to speak before a group of free students (those who consciously didn’t join fraternities) at the University of Munich on the topic of “Scholarship as a Calling.” Weber was a famous professor. The students wanted answers, orientation, guidance. Instead, Weber offered distinctions: between value-free inquiry and politically motivated scholarship; between the dilettante, who may arrive at a scholarly insight, and the scholar, who works through the insight; and between wisdom, and the concepts, rational experiments, and open criticism that are part of the scholarly enterprise. Most importantly, he insisted that scholarship does not offer answers to the great questions of the world—what should we do and how shall we live?—and that the prophets do not have their place in lecture halls (where they can scarcely be contradicted). Scholarship, Weber told his audience, “is a specialized profession in the service of self-consciousness and the knowledge of factual connections.” This, Weber continued, was not a normative position but “an inescapable result of our historical situation.” To imagine otherwise is mystification.

Do we imagine otherwise? Weber pleaded for a sharp separation between scholarship and politics, not in order to save politics but to protect scholarship, which he believed held a special place in the world. Scholarship, let us return to humanities scholarship, had to be defended not for its current utility but for its ability to show the existing connections in the world, and for the general importance that societies attach to understanding in depth. Less, Weber implied, might well turn out to be more.

There is of course another model, even though its explicit place was not the university. This is the model of Marx’s final thesis on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways, the point is to change it.” If the thesis was originally meant to underscore the difference between thought and act, the “only” ought to alert us to its implicit denigration of thought. Moreover, its nineteenth century context, marked by revolutionary urgency, has been replaced by the dull and deadening experience of utopia’s having captured state power. When you enter the foyer of the Humboldt University in Berlin, after first passing between the statues of Helmholtz and Mommsen, the thesis still stares at you in larger-than-life letters. At the time when Marx wrote his theses on Feuerbach, in 1845, the University of Berlin (as it was originally called) was one of the greatest universities for the humanities in the western world, rivaled only, in my opinion, by the Sorbonne; by 1886, when the theses were first published, its preeminence was hardly challenged. Soon thereafter, the United States shaped graduate education as we now know it on the Berlin model, first developed by Wilhelm von Humboldt. Then the crosswinds of twentieth-century politics whirled, first from the right, when the Nazis perverted the best in the tradition of German Geisteswissenschaften, then by the Communists, who screwed Marx’s thesis onto the marble wall.

One cannot help but think that, for the University of Berlin, committing what Marx took to have been Feuerbach’s error would have been better. Here is a university, and a tradition, that needs healing. But Paglia is also right—insofar as there are humanities scholars, and even centers, who would still side, from whatever political standpoint, with Marx and against Feuerbach. Given the kind of criticism directed at the humanities in the wake of Summer’s resignation, it is evident that Marx has stranger compatriots than he could have easily imagined. In the end, though, what is needed is not another sermon about how les extremes se touchent, but a coming together to affirm and to ground the autonomous social value of knowledge-in-depth, and the special place of the humanities in universities and of universities in the world.

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