Save the Humanities With This One Simple Trick!

I am entirely aware that the following review of Eric Adler’s The Battle of the Classics cuts a little deep and comes at an inopportune moment. Nevertheless, Adler sent me this book before the outbreak of white supremacist and rightwing violence last week prompted multiple calls for increased training in the humanities. Our context and Adler’s implicit invitation prompted me to finish and post this review, despite our collective exhaustion.

To be clear, Adler’s book has no connection to last week’s coup. But there’s a cyclical and reactive debate about the impact of the humanities on current events, and claims that the humanities are not political are as vacuous as those insisting they are responsible in some significant way. In a sense, both Adler and I serve as mere proxies in  broader, contentious debates.

Indeed, I was hesitant to post this review at all for fear of appearing less kind than I aspire to be or of giving the ideas in this book additional attention. Yet I grow increasingly tired of our intellectual histories pretending objectivity while still supporting a trenchantly ideological system. We need Classicists to perform critical and honest histories of our field to help us chart better courses forward. We don’t need sophistic prevarication.

The reaction of many humanists and classicists to the ‘revelation’ that our fields are racist in practice and in origin is not dissimilar to the responses by white intellectuals and politicians to the 1619 Project, which Trump has countered with the risible 1776 Project: resistance, minimization, denial, and outright violent rejection. Even those who try to accommodate new historical analyses may suffer cognitive dissonance, reluctant or incapable of acknowledging that the degree to which one realizes how toxic academiaand classicsis depends upon one’s own positionality.  

It is a farce for any field of critical inquiry to refuse to conduct or accept a critique of its own history. To study the past without being interested in how earlier generations shaped this study and how their political, racial, gendered, and otherwise formative discourses influenced them is to engage in intellectual cosplay. This is, of course, an insult to the latter: at least cosplayers know they are engaging in fantasy. How much more ironic and hypocritical it is, then, for a field so proud of the Delphic “know thyself” to resist the practice of doing so!

Some readers are going to leave this piece with a forced misconception, carrying some ridiculous takeaway like “Homerist cancels Homer” or the like. (There’s a free headline for you!) Much to the contrary, this is a call to live up to the aspirations of the practice of the humanities, to force ourselves to be more than simple agents of tradition.

Adler’s primary emphasis in his bookthat we need to advocate for the humanities based on their substance or contentis left abstract until its end. It is also at the end that some potential audiences emerge. What starts as a softer, center academic voice (see Adler’s welcome critique of the neoliberal university and educational consumerism) drifts rightward in the conclusion, characterizing Reed college’s inclusion of Mexico City and the Harlem Renaissance in its Hum 110 course as “a capitulation to contemporary American identity politics…[which] reinforces the sense that reforms, nominally aimed at a genuine cosmopolitanism, instead underscore American provincialism” (Adler 220).

Of course, I have excerpted the previous statements to make it seem as if Adler were making them and not merely repeating the kinds of things people say (which is how the paragraph is couched) because the closing chapter, intentionally or not, flirts with dog-whistles and gives a platform to arguments familiar to readers (or victims) of Quillette and the Heterodox Academy, at its best, and the ravings of less rational actors, at the worst. 

Once he offers an overview of some texts he might suggest for the “wisdom of the ages”, Adler suggests, “In such a curriculum, diversity and inclusiveness remain important organizing principles. Yet they are not attained by a relentless, tokenizing pursuit of representativeness for its own sake. On the contrary, they emerge from a more intellectually serious investigation of how we as a species have sought to answer the most fundamental questions of life” (222). 

This all may sound reasonable on the surface, until one imagines how these phrases resound with certain audiences and how they appropriate the language of inclusive pedagogy and practice to signal that there is a higher principle of rigor and quality. These are like the words of colleagues I have encountered who are happy to hire a woman or BIPOC scholar, as long as we don’t have to sacrifice “quality” to do so.

This summary  also leaves out how selectively Adler shapes his intellectual history and how much his argument relies on the deeply problematic conservative scholar Irving Babbitt. On the whole, this book provides a somewhat interesting overview of some debates over the classical humanities in higher education in the United States. It is not clear, however, that the discussions paced over a century would have been recognized by anyone as a specific or continuous “Battle of the Classics”.  In ignoring the fact that the “Classics” have always been selective and exclusive (and in eliding the Humanities and Classics), Adler joins his subjects as idealizing the content of the Classical tradition irrespective of the process that delivered it.

In aiming to argue for a “wisdom of the ages” that improves the human condition, Adler trains his gaze always on the idea of the objects rather than the subjects who benefit from them. At some level, I do deeply agree with the plea that we should focus on how the humanities can make us better humansI just think this is a capacity we bring to the texts as subjects ourselves rather than magical qualities a set of texts may grant to us with the right shamans as our guides.

Allegory of the Seven Liberal Arts, Maerten de Vos, 1590

Defending the Humanities by Definition

(continue for the details..)

Over the next few years, higher education will see an acceleration in change brought about by (1) shifting technologies, (2) a “baby bust”,  (3) a demographic shift away to a non-white majority in college-aged Americans and informed by greater awareness of our nation’s systemic racism, (4)  ever widening income inequality exacerbated by COVID-19, and (5) the unpredictable ravages of climate change. 

Given these challenges, it is nearly too late to gather allies and marshal arguments to defend the humanities against cuts that are already happening. And where we must start, it seems, is by first trying to figure out what the humanities are. This question must be as preoccupied with what they do as what we call them. 

Definition through semantic and intellectual history is one approach to the question. In the first part of The Battle of the Classics, Adler strives to make distinctions among the disciplines included in this label over time, from the Roman humanitas to the institutionalization of The Humanities in higher education. In Aulus Gellius’ rumination on the term, we find the tension between the idea that humanitas is a spirit that increases our benevolence toward all human beings and the notion that humanitas is instead an expression of the ‘best’ of human endeavors, a pursuit attainable only through study of aesthetic objects and erudition. This seems to be the studia humanitatis Adler finds in Rome: “Ciceronian humanitas can be seen as “high culture,” exposure to which renders one refined and benevolent” (37).

Demarcating what the humanities are, then, is a good old Socratic first-step before defending them. And here, to crib from Seneca the Younger, most of us suffer shipwreck before ever embarking (EM 87, Naufragium antequam navem ascenderem feci). For me, the humanities should be the study of what humans are and create in the world, what it means to be alive and live with one another, and how we subsist (and do not) over time. It should be an exploration of the tension between the particular and the general, between different kinds of experiences of humanity over time, in the effort of attaining that greater benevolence towards the self, and others. In short, the polar opposition I offer above must be reconfigured as a duality and a binary: the humanities should be a practice, not a product. They are a process of living more fully, not a measurable (and saleable) outcome to be gained. 

The tension can indubitably yield a terrible confusion, culminating in the worship of a particular set of objects. In striving to become more human, we find the cultural replacement of the objects for the pursuit. That is, we both assume that without experience of a specific set of objects, one is not ‘human’ and, eventually, we slip from the humanities as practice to The Humanities as discourse––or to put it more baldly, propaganda. In fetishizing the products over the process we run the risk of offering an ahistorical, decontextualized canon as a miserable aesthetic shorthand for “civilization.”

Adler, a professor of Classics at the University of Maryland, sets out in his book with the clickbaity subtitle “How a Nineteenth Century Debate Can Save the Humanities” in order to demonstrate  historical continuities in the malpractice of advocating for the Humanities and to offer a solution. He advances this by examining a treatise by Charles Francis Adams, a son of President John Quincy Adams and overseer of Harvard University, followed by a debate between Charles Eliot , a president of Harvard, and James McCosh, a president of Princeton University. The issue is that humanists habitually make the mistake of proposing that the humanities are good for intellectual training (hence the praise of “rigor” today and “mental discipline” in the 19th century ) or are critical for training in specific skills. In doing so, humanists have always ceded ground on how they can inculcate wisdom and moral character. 

The first part of Adler’s  argumentemphasizing the repeated mistakes we make in our claims for the utility of humanistic inquiryis useful and sound. The second component, text as proprietors of wisdom, takes us to a prolonged recuperation of another figure from Harvard’s past, Irving Babbitt. In turning to Babbitt, Adler finds the key to saving all of the humanities, namely, centering on the objective capacity for certain texts to bring us wisdom. The pining for universal appeal is at times tempting; yet, as too often is the case, the devil is in the details.

Two kinds of detail prevent me from sharing this beautiful wisdom with Adler. First, he makes selective use of the scholars, the movements, and the historical details he presents. The Battle of the Classics shows little to no interest in contextualizing these intellectual debates in the dirty history of their days. And yet how can we understand the battle without addressing the cause of the (civil) war?  I don’t know how anyone can write about the intellectual debate during the 1860s, the half century after, or the early 20th century without asking how they were shaped by the debate about American slavery, the Civil War, the failed promises of reconstruction, segregation in education and Jim Crow, the Women’s Suffrage Movement, Industrialization, the continued genocide of indigenous peoples, or World War 1.

It is almost as if we are to imagine debates about humanities starting and ending in offices at Harvard University and Princeton with some turns in exclusive supper clubs, all of it written up like baseball scores in long closed newspapers. No history of the humanities that refuses to examine how our academic disciplines have related to colonialism, nationalism, gender and sex discrimination, and structural racism has any hope of saving our institutions, much less humanity itself.

Sandro Botticelli 028.jpg
Sandro Botticelli, “A Young Man Being Introduced to the Seven Liberal Arts”

Selective Histories

The odd focus of this book comes clear in the introduction and the first chapter where Adler sets a pattern of composition, namely, to offer exposition followed by rhetorical questions, anticipating the content of subsequent sections. It seems clear, to me at least, that the questions are rhetorical. They anticipate conclusions rather than enjoining readers to consider the problem on their own. 

In order to set the stage of our ‘current crisis, Adler returns to the financial collapse of 2007-8 and uses Martha Nussbaum as a bit of a straw person, emphasizing differences in her comments on the state of the humanities from the late 1990s to 2010’s Not For Profit. Adler sidesteps any real discussion of the culture wars following the 1960s that shape Nussbaum’s perspectives, although some intellectual allegiances emerge in approvingly citing the “political philosopher” Allan Bloom who “excoriated the relativism he spied in modern American higher education [as] culture warriors have harped on the crippling effects of postmodern theory on the humanities.” (This itself is a lie: humanities degrees thrived as post-modern theory first exploded on college campuses. The downturn was economic and political.)

In this discussion, Adler offers as a counter-weight the arguments of Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory whose writings during the 2010s endeared him to conservative groups cutting funding for the humanities in states like Texas and Florida. This first discussion troubled me especially: Bauerlein is neither in ability nor in stature an equal to Nussbaum. More importantly, the leap from the 90s to after the crisis plays “gotcha” with Nussbaum without acknowledging exponentially increasing divestment in higher education, driven almost exclusively by conservative state legislatures, nor the huge shifts in emphasis on STEM driven by technology changes.

In his second chapter, Adler sets out to provide a history of how our “humanities” came from France in the 18th Century based on an understanding of Roman studia humanitatis. As intellectual history, this is somewhat adequate, even if it skips steps and fails to contextualize how the pursuit of these disciplines in different eras corresponded to politics and values in those periods.

Adler dutifully recounts the origins of concepts like studia humanitatis and artes liberales in Cicero’s works after uncritically dismissing Greek traditions. While he translates the liberal arts rightly as “those appropriate for the education of the freeborn” (36) he spares no effort to consider the tension between the allegedly humanizing force of these studies and the inability of ancient authors to question the subjugation of women and the practice of enslaving human beings. 

The classical humanities as we know them were developed by and for those who relied on the labor of enslaved people to live their lives and write their treatises. The liberal economies of the Americas and Europealong with their Universitiesin no small part similarly relied on enslaved labor and colonialism. The hypocrisy of American slavers contemplating justice and the universal rights of human beings bears some relation to the fact that their ancient intellectual champions experienced no detectable cognitive dissonance in exploring their deep thoughts and enjoying the labor of their enslaved fellow human beings.

This oversight is doubly troubling since Adler argues that the historia studiii is necessary because “It stands to reason that before we can adequately defend the humanities, we need to know what they have been, and what they are today” (Adler, 35; his italics). The spirit of this study is proved false if the exploration of the past is limited and distorted by a lack of context. As archaeologist Sarah Parcak has noted, “In archaeology, context is everything. Objects allow us to reconstruct the past”—but we must treat texts in the same manner we treat objects: in situ. 

Adler breezily leaps from Quintilian and Seneca to Petrarch and Leonardo Bruni in the Renaissance, noting overlaps in the periods in analyzing these authors’ focus on “education as primarily a moral enterprise” and in spotlighting the way they “shunned vocationalism” and “vulgar” tongues. It would likely be tedious to emphasize again the lack of context in comparing these periods or the class dynamics at play in producing these values. This reduces a very fractious and diverse group of personalities into cartoons: Petrarch was accomplished in Italian but not Greek; Dante wrote a de Vulgari Eloquentia in defense of languages other than Latin; Bruni and others were scholarly champions of aristocracy.

To begin humanism with Cicero is to advance a popular albeit silly ‘fact’; to build an argument about what humanism should be on a narrow view of Renaissance humanism that makes more shortcuts than I can count is to create a wholly fictive and conveniently pat antecedent. Adler notes the narrowing of the liberal arts to exclude natural sciences etc. by offering and then summarizing the just-so assertion of F. Edward Cranz (2006) that “in the Renaissance…inhabitants of western Europe possessed an individualistic, inward looking conception of the self (Adler, 49) ending in the neat assertion that “from contemplation of the universe’s perfection, the Renaissance humanists now aimed to perfect themselves” (Ibid.). Such an intellectual history replicates in the extreme the Northern European marginalization of intellectual contributions of the Eastern Mediterranean from the Bronze age through the Hellenistic period and the Byzantine Empire. 

Francken II, Frans – An Allegory of the Liberal Arts – 17th c,_Frans_-_An_Allegory_of_the_Liberal_Arts_-_17th_c.jpg

American Histoire Blanche

From covering nearly two millennia of the Humanities, Adler trains his gaze to the birth of research Universities in America and the struggles starting around 1827 to relax entrance requirements in Greek and decenter the Classical humanities for undergraduate degrees. This is at times a rather interesting overview of U.S. higher education in the 18th and 19th centuries, but remains curious without a consideration of the political and demographic factors influencing them. For instance, Adler reports that Jacob Abbott designed a degree program without Latin and Greek at Amherst college, but provides little explanation as to why (or that Abbott also founded a school for women in Boston) or how long (Abbott lasted only a few years at Amherst). Nevertheless, it is with a discussion of the Yale Report and then moving through the works of Charles Adams (“A College Fetich”), Charles Eliot, and James McCosh that Adler finds his primary opportunity to identify conventional weaknesses in our approaches to defending the humanities. 

And, here, too, we find perhaps telling omissions  as when Adler mentions that Adams advocates for German as well as French instead of ancient Greek, omitting Adams’ addition of Spanish as “what the Greek is not,a very considerable American fact” (Fetich 35). While Adler certainly mentions neoliberal consumerism as a cause of our laissez-faire curriculum, he does not frame Adams’ concerns, or the later debates of Eliot and McCosh, in the pragmatic economic themes that certainly influenced them. Historical context is an added flavor to explain personal traits of some of his combatants but rarely applied as a heuristic to understand large scale social movements.

One glaring problem with the approaches outlined in the book is that they are all about the humanities from a top-down perspective. I don’t believe we can achieve meaningful change in education or in our shared humanity if we think this important learning starts at age 18. In “The Grammar School of the Future”,  however, Charles Eliot advocates for considerable expenditure to offer all American children equal access to grammar school instruction (Educational Reform 1898, 129) and elsewhere he emphasizes the need to prepare good secondary school teachers (something Adler does talk about). But nowhere do we find the acknowledgement that historically the “liberal arts” have been reserved for or designed for members of social classes who don’t have to worry about material survival. If we want a true revolution in thoughtthe “radical approach for which Adler pineswe need a humanities that worries about our material circumstances. Adler’s hero Irving Babbitt instead dismissively translates Gellius’ comments on humanitas cited above as “a promiscuous benevolence, what the Greeks call Philanthropy” (Literature and the American College 1908, 7).


More Human than Human(s)

After covering nearly a century of debate about the humanities in the United States in Chapters 3 and 4 and focusing on contrasting the laissez faire approach of free election (Charles Eliot’s Harvard) in opposition to then theologically motivated prescribed curriculum (McCosh’s Princeton), Adler turns a major figure of New Humanism, Irving Babbitt, to bring us his solution to the crisis of the humanities. 

Irving Babbitt has become a favorite of right-leaning intelligentsia over time even as he has not retained much respect among modern literary theorists (do a google search for Irving Babbitt to see the range). Adler’s treatment is a bit of a recuperative hagiography that does a decent job of presenting an apostle bridging the gap between Charles Eliot Norton (a father of the repackaging of the Classics as “Western Civilization”) and Allan Bloom, until you press his assertions a bit. 

Adler paints a kindeven adoringportrait of Babbitt and focuses at first on some of his ideas which certainly have resonance today, and with me especially. For instance, Adler emphasizes Babbitt’s impatience with philological pedantry (167) and his rejection of the German Wissenschaft which had come to dominate Classical studies in the U.S. Adler’s account makes it clear that Babbitt’s philosophy was shaped by his frustration with the way the humanities were pursued at the time, even if he does not go as far as Babbitt’s colleague Paul Elmer More who suggested that Babbitt might have been a different scholar if he had been awarded the professorship of Classics he coveted and not a mere position in French.

Along with William Arnold, and More, Babbitt was a proponent of an approach to the Humanities reacting to the broad changes of the previous century. Adler positions Babbitt’s work as a “radical critique of professionalized American education” (165), providing the essential framework needed today. Beyond disagreeing that this approach is radical (except in the Latin sense that it is present in the roots), I believe that New Humanism is merely a softer side of the perspective adopted by champions of Western Civilization, changing names and integrating a few different voices, but staying true to the central conceit. 

Indeed, while Adler dutifully offers a critique of the Nortonian idea of “Western Civilization,” he also employs a historical approach that focuses on the name and its limitation (and pedantically affirming that ancient Greeks and Romans would not have seen themselves this way) rather than the cultural impact of the phenomenon built on exclusion, oppression, and distorting the past. Instead, we face a sleight of hand where we are told that “Western Civilization” isn’t a thing, the thing is the earlier studia humanitatis. It is as if resetting the timeline of the humanities can scrub them cleanly of their association with “western civ”. 

This “new humanism” is merely a rose by another name. My central objection is that Babbittand his cohortwere authoritarian idealists, believing that certain texts were of such a quality that they can imbue their readers with moral character. Such an approach leaves little room for acknowledging that all narratives and textual objects possess and project ugliness as well as beauty. I also find this approach intellectually reprehensible, because it focuses on the objects of study and not the people who make this study possible.

Part of what causes me disquiet in Adler’s presentation hereand this is akin to what I find slippery about the earlier chaptersis that he has a very clear view of who he wants Babbitt to be and what he wants from New Humanism, but this view is decontextualized and may not square with the actual facts. Now, talking about what’s the good of a theory or scholar and leaving out the bad is perfectly sensible. But I don’t like this characterization or what is left behind.

Adler’s Babbitt emphasizes the use of models from the past to teach students how to control their longings, his “humanism…was the analysis of literary and artistic masterworks that would provide for the young the most compelling visions of the good, the true, and the beautiful” (Adler 173). This is a simplistic idealismit is mono-directional and not dialogic. It is yet another turn in a debate between idealism and relativism going on since before the composition of a single Platonic dialogue. 

Railing against relativism was Babbitt’s raison d’etrein addition to his still popular Democracy and Leadership, his most famous work at the time was an attack on Rousseau and Romanticism. And, in a way, the conservative embrace of Babbitt is an embrace of a conventional idealism, a traditional absolutism, against the relativist movements revived with the Enlightenment and finding their fuller forms in postmodernism, and the thought of those other intellectual heirs of the Classics, Foucault and Derrida (to name but two). Although it takes a few steps to get there, Babbitt takes the traditional and retrograde side in a proxy battle between conventionalists (religious or not) and a broader range of approaches to the past and present. For Babbitt, as quoted by Adler, humanitarians (who aren’t real humanists) dismiss the “wisdom of the ages” and pursue “a doctrine of progress that would seem to be in serious conflict with the wisdom of the ages” (175; quoting Babbitt 1940, 60).

Those approaches excluded out by Babbitt’s New Humanism are the very ones that try to envision a world that purposefully includes women, people of different disabilities, different faiths, different genders, sexualities, races etc. As Babbitt and Adler both emphasize, New Humanism, drawing on Plato’s Protagoras’  problem of the “one and the many”, seeks to enforce oneness on the many, rather than allowing the many truths of human and experience to lead us together. Indeed, Babbitt seems antagonistic to the idea of equity, opposing those who would pursue social justice for the sake of equity as “destroying the strict letter of the law” (Blackmur 1941, 37 on Democracy and Leadership.)

Adler seeks to minimize potential critiques of Babbitt, acknowledging that some people have taken issues with his approach without giving them voice or taking them seriously (190-191). For me, it is enough that turn-of-the-century Babbitt seems wholly unconcerned with women, Black Americans or income inequality. Babbitt, in his own words, presents ideas that should cause serious concern on their own. As R. P. Blackmur characterizes him (1941) he could be reductive in the models he created from Greek tragedy and that his end process in learning was “intellectual assimilation” (30). While supporters will point out repeatedly that Babbitt was not actively a Christian, he viewed the goods of “western civilization” as coming from “the spirit of a gentleman and the spirit of religion”. His intellectual history even posited that Christianity “founded something of which not even a Plato or an Aristotle had an adequate notion—personal liberty…” (Babbitt 1924, 115).

What Blackmur calls Babbitt’s “lust for order”—crucial to Babbit’s reductive approach to literature and meaning—William Spanos has characterized as “an instrument—a technology, as it were—of something like totalitarian power” (1993, 91 The End of Education: Towards Posthumanism). A progressive he was not: Babbitt championed rulings against labor unions and lamented any infringement on individual property. When it comes to education, Babbitt writes “in one sense the purpose of the college is not to encourage the democratic spirit, but on the contrary to check the drift toward a pure democracy. If our definition of humanism has any value, what is needed is not democracy alone, nor again an unmixed aristocracy, but a blending of the two—an aristocratic and selective democracy” (Leadership and Democracy, 89).

At times, Babbitt could sound the part of an extremist whose views in 1923 might resound on Parler today when he writes “Circumstances may arise when we may esteem ourselves fortunate if we get the American equivalent of a Mussolini; he may be needed to save us from the American equivalent of a Lenin” (1924, 312; see Greifer 1971, 38 for an anecdote where Babbitt clarifies that “[one] must always oppose the vices of the age”). I can’t re-read this after January 6th, 2021 without feeling sick, without reflecting on how often great ‘learning’ is used to justify heinous acts or remembering how evil, banal or otherwise, always attracts defenders (with a nod to Hannah Arendt).

For Adler, Babbitt’s humanism is “multicultural” because he was deeply passionate about Buddhism. Liking Buddhism prevents you from being a cultural chauvinist just as much as marrying a person from a different race inoculates you against racism (that is to say, not at all). So too, in his own words, Babbitt embraces Buddhism because of its similarity to Greek thought, declaring that “India as a whole failed to learn the lesson” (“Literature and the College”, 1908, 24). To highlight Babbitt’s ecumenicalism, Adler attacks social Darwinists (183-184) for their racism, asserting that higher education’s rejection of “a unity of knowledge” was “akin to nineteenth century esteem for racism and nationalism” (184). This is bad faith argumentation not dissimilar to claiming that Republicans can’t be racist because Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. Indeed, the rising tone of partisan apologetics and sophomoric whataboutism in this chapter renders the overview of Babbitt incredible in the traditional sense of the word.

Babbitt’s interest is in the use of selections from the past for ends of his own making, trying to separate history from nature (see Greifer 1971). He is forced to focus on abstractions, positing an idealized, fictionalized version of the past. Babbitt’s classicism is based on selection, which is why he prefers the Latin literae humaniores, thanks to the greater emphasis it puts on the need of selection” (24). Babbitt’s humanism is about loving the text and despising its people.

The perfectibility of the individualfor which Babbitt longsis impossible as long as the good in human life resides in and relies on others. Babbitt complains instead that a true “humanist is more selective in its caresses,” interested in “perfecting the individual rather in schemes for the elevation of mankind as a whole.” I cannot get over the horror I feel at this approach. This is the secret weakness of the libertarian delusion. As Pliny the Elder puts it, “ ‘God’ is a person helping another person; this is the path to eternal fame” (deus est mortali iuvare mortalem, et haec ad aeternam gloriam via, Natural History 2.5 18).

The praise Adler lavishes on Babbitt relies on undefined aspirations like “humanistic standards,” “the wisdom of the ages,” and a “serious and satisfying life” (178). I would almost be more satisfied to find instead a neo-Straussian insistence on truth and beauty. Babbitt’s classical works are valued as magic talismans that “ [appeal] to our higher reason and imagination..[which enable] us to become participants in the universal life” (Adler 181, quoting Babbitt 1991, 16).

At the end, there is a Terentian simplicity to what Babbitt thinks the Humanities are for: like the brother Demio in the Adelphoe, the New Humanist points at things to say “do this” (hoc facito), “don’t do that” (Hoc fugito). Except, Terence isn’t simple: the tediously didactic brother turns out to be a fool. Perhaps, in the best moments, we can imagine someone like Horace’s father (Satires 1.4: 120-126), who trains his son through stories and examples and a dialogue between idealized precedents and the real events. Or, to go back further, perhaps the best humanist is like Phoenix in the Iliad, reminding Achilles of the stories of the ancients. What we learn there—if we listen carefully—is that the story is never perfect, is never ideal. Not only does it take hard work to figure out what its lessons are, sometimes the story doesn’t apply at all. And that teaches us something important too.

                                                                      * * *

I imagine that this book will find an eager audience in those fatigued by having to think  about the context, plight, and oppression of others. They must choose whether they will ignore or embrace the fact that it replicates the same iniquities of thought as the debates themselves, since Adler denies them the historical framework within which we must understand cultural limitations or the harms classical universalism perpetrated against those who have not been embraced by it. Indeed, if we want to ‘save’ the humanities, it is long past time to stop looking to white men from the Ivy Leagues to do so. 

What would a defense of the humanities look like instead if we centered the work and experience of someone like Anna J. Cooper, a Black woman who earned a PhD and writes clearly about the monotony and exhaustion of a Greek culture bereft of diversity and change and believed in the importance in lifelong education for everyone (A Voice from the South, 153-154)? What of the Classicism of W.E.B DuBoiswho receives a paltry mention in a footnote to another author in Adler’s book—and its similar debate with vocational needs like those mentioned by Booker T. Washington or more challenging responses to European Humanism like the movement of Négritude and work of someone like Aimé Césaire or the marxist/philosophical critiques of Frantz Fanon? What if more classicists like Adler at least started by joining reading groups like those sponsored by Eos whose recent sessions have taken us through Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and Toni Morrison’s “Unspeakable Things Unspoken,” texts that have more to teach about the humanities and the human condition than all of Babbitt’s writings?

These approaches don’t avoid acknowledging that how we approach the humanities is framed by political motives and ideals. We can’t have an apolitical humanities that ignores the material life of human beings. As Cooper notes in her book, it was “quite natural” to disarm the sneering Calhoun by showing that a Black person could master the Greek subjunctive, but it was not enough because “wealth must pave the way for learning” (261). Working on the perfection of any individual serves only to make sure that the humanities merely distract us from the needs of the rest.


thanks to a few friends who read over this review–I know you know who you are. And thanks as well to the organizers and participants of the Eos Reads sessions which provided some additional inspiration and ideas. I have not thanked anyone by name to avoid unintentional engagements. For another review and a partial critique of mine, see M. Planudes’ good work.

Works Cited

Charles Francis Adams. A College Fetich. 1883.

Erik Adler. The Battle of the Classics. Oxford, 2020.

Irving Babbitt. Literature and the American College: Essays in Defense of the Humanities. 1908.

Irving Babbitt. Democracy and Leadership. 1924/1934.

Anna J. Cooper. A Voice from the South. 1892.

Edward Cranz. Reorientations of Western Thought from Antiquity to the Renaissance. 2006.

P. Blackmur. “Humanism and Symbolic Imagination: Notes on Re-Reading Irving Babbitt.” The Southern Review Autumn 1941

Greifer, E. (1971). The conservative pose in america: Irving babbitt and the search for standards. Western Political Quarterly, 24(1), 32. Retrieved from

Charles Eliot. Educational Reform. New York. 1898

William Spanos. The End of Education: Towards Posthumanism. 1993.

Booker T. Washington. Up From Slavery. 1907.

11 thoughts on “Save the Humanities With This One Simple Trick!

  1. I will never forget when I was a fairly new professor at the college where I teach (about twenty years ago) and was teaching the year long humanities course for our first year students. And one of our books was one I had never read–Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. I became so intoxicated with the beauty of her language and the sheer wonder of the insight in the book that when I came to class the first thing I told my students was: “I swear to God, this book lights me up more than Shakespeare.” It was that moment that redefined for me what a classic text is, and I will forever be grateful for my colleagues who fought to have it included in our curriculum.

  2. Thanks for this extensive review! I really found helpful the outline of some of Adler’s methodological assumptions as well as your rigorous push to contextualize the historical debates and actors (especially in regard to Babbitt) on which Adler chose to focus.

    I nevertheless think that at the end of the day, both you and Adler wishes to direct the academic study of the humanities in the same direction: namely, away from the growing obsession with supposedly unique technical skills (largely aimed to improve chances of degree holders in the job market), and instead shift it toward content.

    Adler does not give too much concrete details on what particular content educators should focus, and he continuously emphasizes the importance of a lively debate in academic departments on what constitutes and how we should constitute the canon of humanistic education. Indeed Adler’s rather abstract language of ‘character formation’ and ‘perfection of the self’ is quite awkward at times, especially, as you have shown, when quoted and taken out of context.

    But I still found two practical points that Adler makes (largely inspired by New Humanities), which are less abstract and, in my opinion, highly productive: the concern of the humanistic project with (1) studying past models of behavior and thought, and (2) with choosing models that reassure the “sense of unity (the One) and the rich diversity (the Many) of human experience over time.”

    When you write at the end of the your essay that Fanon and Morrison “have more to teach about the humanities and the human condition than all of Babbitt’s writings” – I think you are making exactly these two points which Adler emphasizes quite clearly in his book.

    (by the way, is it fair to argue that Adler wishes to include Babbitt in the humanistic canon? It seemed to me that rather Babbitt’s particular ‘meta’ insights on the humanistic project could be helpful. I am not sure if Adler argues that his texts fall under the two points I mentioned above – but I could have missed this in my reading!)

    Again, I think your review has been really helpful for me to think about the topic, but I also think there is much more in common between you and Adler. I also think that some of the points you raise about lack of contextually may have risen due to editorial concerns and the possible audience Adler had in mind when writing this book: namely, those concerned with present-days debates in academic circles between humanistic education and STEM, especially when it comes to funding.

    1. Near the end of the review, Adler does list Babbitt along with Petrarch and Bruni, which I found troubling. I also agree that neither Adler or I want tto dispense with the humanities or focus overmuch on “skills” and critical thinking. So, thank you for careful reading!

  3. This is the most atrocious “book review” I have ever read, and I am shocked that anyone would be unashamed to write it or to publish it.
    All I know from reading this awful political screed poorly disguised as a literary critique is that the “reviewer” is not fond of the political right. You know you’re in trouble when an alleged book review about a work of classical scholarship contains references to President Trump. This is not a “review” of Dr. Adler’s book. This is a highly personal political rant which often reads like a primal scream.
    I was hoping to find a reasonable discussion of Dr. Adler’s fascinating, enlightening, and thought-provoking book. Obviously I will have to look elsewhere.

  4. I haven’t read Adler’s book yet, but I am familiar with Babbitt’s work. I think he was a much more interesting figure, and in a way a much sadder case, than you suggest. The heart of Babbitt’s world-view was his Perennialist theory of religion, according to which all the great traditions the world had in common a core of ethical teaching. As is usual with Perennialists, this core of ethical teaching turned out to be remarkably similar to a set of ideas that Babbitt had worked out for himself by the time he was about 20. Still, there was enough scholarship involved in it that students from China believed that he had developed an understanding of Buddhism and Confucianism from which they themselves could learn much, and his studies of literature produced on the continent of Europe during various periods of history certainly defy easy dismissal.

    I say Babbitt was in a way a sad case, because it was always his goal to appear to be a stout conservative. This was perhaps a consequence of his childhood, spent in frequent poverty and constant embarrassment, both stemming from his father’s attempt to create a new religion. Edwin Dwight Babbitt had the idea that the old faiths had all been discredited by the concept of the electro-magnetic spectrum, and that he was himself called to be the prophet of a new dispensation based on this idea. Edwin D. Babbitt doesn’t seem to have attracted many followers, certainly not many who gave him money; by the age of 8, Irving Babbitt was supporting himself and his father selling newspapers in the “Hell’s Kitchen” section of Manhattan. It isn’t hard to see Edwin D. Babbitt in the images of Francis Bacon and Jean-Jacques Rousseau against which Irving Babbitt railed so bitterly in so many sections of his works.

    This desire for a conservative reputation explains much about Babbitt. His Perennialist theory would seem to imply, not only that it was wrong for European powers and the USA to pursue long-term imperialist projects in the regions of Asia that produced the Buddha and Confucius, but that all manifestations of white supremacy were evils to be fought. For a person living in the USA from 1865 to 1933, embracing this implication would mean accepting the label of radical. This Babbitt could not do. So, he continued to develop his theory, but garnished his humanistic ideas with gestures towards the rhetoric and ideologies fashionable on the right.

    A couple of the more (in)famous moments when Babbitt nods to the right show the sadness of his case. In Literature and the American College, Babbitt says that Harvard and institutions like it are not going to stop being institutions for the grooming of America’s elite, and so they ought to try to train the members of that elite in virtue. He tries to give a sort of pep talk suggesting that work among those excluded from the centers of power is not the only valuable educational endeavor. His phrasing is that what is done for “Negroes and newsboys is all very well,” but that Harvard was after all focused on teaching the sons of the Rockefellers and Harrimans, and that this could be in itself a worthwhile project. One can’t help but see in this phrase the young Babbitt, mindful of how the sons of “The Four Hundred” among his classmates would see his own background shouting “Extra! Extra!” on the streets of New York little more than a decade before he won his scholarship and made his way to Harvard in his 20s.

    There is also the bit in Democracy and Leadership when he name-checks academic racists Lothrop Stoddard and Madison Grant, giving the briefest possible summary of their work, following that summary with a vague assertion that they might be onto something important, then returning to what he was talking about before they came up. This passage reminds me strongly of the paragraphs one often sees at the beginning of articles in EdPsych and related fields, naming anti-racist scholars and praising their work, then moving on to discuss data from IQ tests with no further reference to anything that might be problematic about them. Writing in 1924, Babbitt was as concerned about not getting a reputation as “one of those guys” who want to dismantle white supremacy as researchers today might be concerned about not getting a reputation as “one of those guys” who wants to defend scientific racism.

  5. As a psychologist, I couldn’t help but notice certain features in this review of The Battle of the Classics, a book I recently read with great interest.

    On the whole, the reviewer agrees with Adler on many points, but then tangles himself into pretzel shapes in an effort to demonize the book with snarky innuendos and errors. (Adler does not, for instance, endorse Babbitt for any list of great works.) The review is absurdly long and repetitive, suggesting a writer who can’t stop typing late into the night, adding yet one more paragraph filled with what seems to be brilliant wit and biting prose. I do that myself, but most writers reread and ruthlessly edit their work the next day. Unlike publishers such as Oxford, online blogs present no constraints on length other than the writer’s good judgment.

    The review is overtly political, or as one commenter noted, “a political rant…a primal scream,” which may explain some of the reviewer’s motives.

    I can only conclude that the reviewer did not intend to write an objective and balanced book review, and his remark that his review “cuts a little deep” may have backfired. This review cuts most deeply and displays more about the political biases and obsessions of the reviewer than about the scholarship and importance of Adler’s book.

    The Battle of the Classics is well worth reading even (and perhaps especially) for people like me, who strongly support STEM curricula. I was deeply moved by Adler’s compelling defense of the humanities. My own “books to read” list is now revised and much enriched.

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