Wither the Humanities?

Fenster writes:

The very sensible academic Mark Bauerlein has written an article in the very sensible City Journal about a recent program at Clemson aimed at reviving the humanities via a return to a Western core.

Before describing the program he takes a nice jab at other recent attempts to resuscitate the sickly field of humanities via a promotion of its career benefits.  For instance the Humanities Toolkit put out by the National Humanities Alliance is mostly about “valued skills” and “career success”.  Yes, the Toolkit does make reference near the end to “benefits for life”.  But as Bauerlein correctly points out the Toolkit is at its core an antiseptic thing.  No getting down and dirty even mentioning Cicero or Dante.  It’s all quite clean and neat–things that the humanities are most decidedly not.

The lack of any real references in the Toolkit to, you know, actual humanities content no doubt reflects one of the main weaknesses of the field as a whole: at a lot of prestige universities non-STEM fields are almost all infected with postmodern thinking, trendy courses in otherwise stolid fields like history and the exile of the canon.

So Bauerlein is happy to note that Clemson has chosen to tack into the wind, and is offering a program with more of a traditional orientation.

A better approach comes from Clemson University, where a Great Books–style initiative called the Lyceum Program is thriving. Each year, the program admits ten “scholars” out of high school, providing them a $2,500 annual tuition credit. The Lyceum offers eight courses per semester, taught by six professors. The students take the courses as a group, in a set sequence—for example, “Wisdom of the Ancients” for freshman year, “American Political Thought” for sophomore year, and so on. Participants then meet individually every week with their assigned tutors—professors who engage them in Socratic discussion of the readings. After completing the eight required courses, students earn a political science minor. A Lyceum certification may soon appear on transcripts and diplomas.

The program is in my mind completely welcome.  But standing athwart history yelling stop is awfully close to pissing in the wind, and it is worth taking a closer look to see if the program is as promising as Bauerlein makes out.

Alas, I think in Bauerlein’s justified haste to celebrate a program that has resisted giving way to current obsessions the author has oversold a bit. The adjective “thriving” is applied twice to the program and, while all such things are relative, we are still talking about 10 students a year.

That’s always been the problem with the serious humanities programs like St. John’s: admirable but in the end not that many people want them. St; John’s Annapolis enrolls 458 and St. John’s Santa Fe enrolls 322.

Good luck making a dent in the teaching of the humanities, not to mention American life, at ten a year. I don’t mean that as a criticism of the program and if the notion spreads good for that. But the article appears to make somewhat more of the program in that respect than is warranted.

There’s also the fact, not really discussed by the author, that the program is not really a classics and humanities program in the ordinary sense. It is a political science program, and the eight courses that comprise it (one per semester for four years) make up a political science minor, or can be applied to a political science major. Nothing wrong with that either but since the author prefaces his discussion of the program with names like Milton, Beethoven, Bernini and Cervantes, you might miss the fact that the program has a disciplinary focus.

Moreover, the politics on offer is a distinct one: the readings all lead to a conservative, liberty-and-capitalism orientation. Nothing wrong with that either. Indeed three cheers as a corrective to the lopsided approaches that are the norm elsewhere, and at least two cheers for the content itself. But you would not get the flavor of the program from the article.

So what we have year is a program established by one of those rare free-market academic centers devoted to the exploration, and I do not doubt the celebration, of the moral foundations of capitalism. It incorporates some Great Books thinking but it has its own axe to grind. And it draws in ten students a year.

That said, I wish the program well, and if Bauerlein’s slightly lopsided account of it moves the ball forward fine by me.

Bonus: a much noted and terrific 2011 essay by Bauerlein on the “research bust”.  And here is Fenster’s comment on the article, at his now-defunct higher education blog.

Extra Bonus:  At that blog Fenster also further addressed the problem of the ideal model, here.


About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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