So the American Academy of Arts and Sciences issued a report defending the humanities. It wasn’t a very resolute defense, and it seemed somewhat desperate. The result was all kinds of articles that were more about recording than resisting the humanities’ decline and fall in our techno-scientific time.

Lee Siegel, in a thoughtful essay in the Wall Street Journal, gives a different perspective. What we might be witnessing is the liberation of the humanities from the stultifying confines of today’s institutions of higher education.

It’s hard to know what “the humanities” are exactly, as opposed, I guess, to the sciences. The center of the humanities seems to be the study of literature. And allegedly the key sign of their decline is the fading away of the English major, despite the real evidence that most of that fading took place a generation ago. Just as grade inflation has apparently stabilized at a very high level, the number of English (and philosophy) majors seem to have done the same at a low level.

When committees and commissions tell us about such trends, it always in terms of a crisis, such as the crisis of civic literacy or scientific literacy or just literacy. We’re told that the study of literature is indispensable for literacy, which it surely is above a certain level. But there’s a lot more to this crisis. The lack of a formal humanistic education, as Siegel observes, allegedly “leads to numerous pernicious personal conditions, such as the inability to think critically, to write clearly,to empathize with other people, to be curious about other people and places, to engage with great literature after graduation [branded “lifelong learning”], to recognize truth, beauty, and goodness.”

Now no one really thinks that people who weren’t English majors or minors suffer from all those pathologies, nor does it make sense to think that English majors—because of their reading literature for credit—are free from them. Taking a couple of courses in literature as part of a “core curriculum” couldn’t possibly make that much difference.

I do think that people who do fill their leisure time by reading “real books”—literature, philosophy, and such—do have qualities of the soul that are in short supply in our middle-class techno-world. We’re talking here about people who read for intellectual pleasure and not just for stress-relief recreation. One downside of our digital age is that they’re probably more than ever the exception to the rule. In the film Liberal Arts (about Kenyon), we see a student for whom college is being obsessed with a single huge book. We also see that he’s not fitting in with his fellow, better adjusted students. In the HBO series Girls, we see a young woman who majored in “film studies” at a school in Ohio we know to be Oberlin struggling (well, not struggling as much as she should) to earn a living as a writer in New York City. She has a decent prose style, but it turns out she has nothing to write about. One reason: she managed to get through college without reading any “real books” with real care.

Siegel reminds us that literature wasn’t taught in our colleges until the end of the nineteenth century because reading novels and poetry “were part of the leisure of ordinary life.” That’s what an educated person did, and not, of course, for college credit. Thoughts and imaginations were shaped by literature as much as anything else. Sometimes they may have been silly thoughts and romantic imaginations—such as the chivalrous southerners who were moved by Sir Walter Scott to choose a very bloody and very optional war. And sometimes, as in the case of Abraham Lincoln, Shakespeare and the Bible almost all alone were enough to discover and “communicate” both the urgency and poetic/theological significance of the seemingly prosaic American proposition.

The study of literature for credit became common as the twentieth century rolled on. It was, in part, compensatory, to make up for the declining quality of educated leisure and for a waning of religious authority. The search for meaning in a bourgeois world, as part of higher education, became focused on the genres of novels, poetry, and plays.

There was, as Siegel suggests, a kind of “existentialist” moment that began after World War II and persisted through part of the Sixties. The focus on one’s personal destiny in a world distorted by technology and ideology—a world that produced unprecedented mass slaughter—privileged literature over other forms of “communication.” Insofar as philosophy was existential—and so obsessed with Camus, Heidegger, and Sartre, even it seemed more like literature than a technical or “theoretical” discipline. The goal was to save reflection on the truthfully irreducible situation of the particular person from the clutches of theory. The predicament of the person born to trouble—or at least a brush with absurdity—is what novels are about. And the insufficiency of philosophic prose to display that predicament explains why Sartre, Camus, and Walker Percy, for philosophic reasons, wrote novels. It is close, at least, to why Plato wrote dialogues and why St. Augustine wrote his Confessions.

As the great critic Lionel Trilling pointed out, it might have been near-ridiculous to teach books that should make us radically discontent with our ordinary lives in the newly standardized format of American higher education in the 1950s. And it increasingly became doubly ridiculous to have those books taught by careerist professors with the souls without spirit and heart of specialized scholars. It might be triply ridiculous to expect administrators, bureaucrats, and other certifiers of competencies to be able to understand—much less articulate—a credible defense of “the humanities.”

The existentialist point of “the humanities” is to experience the mysterious singularity of the particular being stuck for a moment between two abysses, born to love and die, to be moved by the sometimes inexpressible suffering of the being who must love and die, to experience the joy of “insight” with others, an experience that has nothing to do with “collaborative learning.” As Siegel puts it, it’s to experience “transcendence” of our everyday world, and transcendence can generate issues of “reentry” into that everyday world, issues that can negatively affect productivity and ordinary effectiveness.

One such issue is that the non-careerist teacher of literature—including philosophy understood as literature—can’t possibly explain why what he or she does might be good for critical thinking, effective communication, empathy, or “diversity.” Siegel is right that most literature is not the place to look for writing that is clear in the business or technical sense. And empathy, of course, is a pitiful substitute for love. Diversity seems to be the inauthenticity of the tourist, and it’s experience to be transcended, not appreciated.

Most experts today have figured out that the so-called “suicide of the humanities” began when they succumbed to the temptation of trendy theory. It was too hard to remain “inward,” and so they turned outward, to moralizing on issues of “social justice,” to finding the racism, classism, and sexism that discredits the claims to truth of the “canonical” books of the past. “Political correctness,” of course, is meant to stifle “man’s search for meaning.” That’s not because the person experiencing the hell of “pure possibility” of our high-tech world longs to be a racist, but because the issues of race and class and all that have been already resolved and so can’t tell today’s “leftover” being who he (or she) is and what he’s supposed to do. Professors of literature decided to confine their moralizing to politics, the area of human life in which they could claim neither competence nor a recent tradition of responsibility. The turn outward in the name of relevance actually made the humanities seem more irrelevant.

Before their capture by theory and political correctness, the inwardness of the humanities included the experience of the misery of man with God. That experience might be authentically affirmed as part of the absurdity of being the displaced or homeless being. Or it might be that the experience of transcendence might find good-enough satisfaction in losing oneself in the aesthetic experience of beauty for its own sake. Or anxiety in the face of the lonely nothing that is oneself in God’s absence might be understood, as Walker Percy and other Catholic, existentialist sort-of Thomists did, as the prelude to the wonder that might lead us to intimations, at least, about the goodness and gratuitousness of created being.

In those days, “the humanities” weren’t hostile to religion, although they did highlight how difficult belief is in our radically untraditional time. It was also in those existentialist days that the humanities seemed genuinely bohemian—even in the sense of Russell Kirk, bohemian Tory—or not merely bourgeois bohemian. They were about concerns that should animate one’s whole life. But today, we sadly say, the humanities aren’t typically a refuge from either the despotism of fashion or the despotism of theory, much less the despotism of careerism. That’s one reason among many they seem like a boring waste of valuable time for most students.

Given what most of our institutions of higher education are really like today, Siegel celebrates their abandonment of the humanities. Now literature is free to flourish somewhere else. It’s true enough, I can add, that Socrates never taught for money. And he never could have gotten tenure. He didn’t publish, and his student evaluations would have been uneven. It’s far from clear why it would help a great writer to get any degree at all, and certainly not one in “creative writing.” Someone could argue, of course, that things were different when people routinely read real books outside of class. But there’s no reason why they can’t do so again.

Siegel’s understanding of the humanities is perhaps too existentialist, too animated by contempt for the alleged diversions of ordinary life. The study of great books probably flourishes best when “contexualized” by the relational responsibilities of free persons. Liberal education through most of our history was somewhat “Stoic” or connected to the relational duties of ladies and gentlemen located in a particular place. And it was also, of course, usually somewhat religious or conditioned by what we can know and must do as beings made in the image of the loving God.

This is emphatically not an exclusively conservative conclusion. The politically liberal and proudly neo-Puritanical novelist Marilynne Robinson recalls the original antebellum, abolitionist, Christian mission of Oberlin: liberal education was available for everyone, including blacks and women. Everyone studied, and everyone—including the professors—worked. The egalitarianism with condescension that motivates our noblest defenders of liberal education is often—even typically—of Christian and liberal inspiration. I could add here, of course, a commentary on the fearless Christian responsibility that Martin Luther King, Jr. said was taught the proud men of Morehouse. The point is, of course, that because we’re essentially neither black nor white, male nor female, Jew nor gentile, liberal education—as opposed to, say, women’s studies—is for us all.

There is probably something to Siegel’s perception that the effort to defend the humanities everywhere in our educational system might be misguided. Maybe the focus should be on “countercultural” (which doesn’t mean all about the Sixties) institutions that exist in a communal context and that have what it takes to resist standardization, trendy theory, and the understandable but still excessive focus on techno-productivity. Maybe they can in some indirect way elevate us all.

Or maybe we should ask that there be just a lot more celebration of the diversity that still characterizes higher education in America, even in particular institutions and sometimes within particular departments. The enemy of this diversity is standardization—what comes from shamefully intrusive accrediting agencies, government bureaucrats, the use of “branding” and various forms of management-speak to describe liberal education, the adoption of the skills-and-competencies model (which is okay for tech schools) to evaluate higher education, and the insistence that the standard of productivity should drive all educational funding.

One advantage of standardization, of course, is that it holds slackers accountable. But we shouldn’t work too hard to get rid of all those slackers (such as those “tenured radicals”). Otherwise, we’ll too often mistake leisure for laziness. We might even mistake metaphysics, theology, poetry, and so forth for self-indulgent pursuits that don’t prepare students for the rigors of the competitive twenty-first-century marketplace. More than ever, it seems to me, it is essential to hold members of our “cognitive elite” to a standard higher than productivity. All Americans’ lives would be less pathological—and so, for one thing, more productive—if imaginationswere, once again, filled with “real books.”  

Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College.

Lawler takes up the argument of Lee Siegel on the place of the humanities, suggesting that the study of great books needs a context and that we should celebrate a different kind of diversity.