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 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Marten_de_Vos_Seven_liberal_arts.jpg

Defending the Humanities by Definition

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Obsessed with Literature: Humanizing and Enlightening the Mind

Cicero, Pro Archia 13

“I confess indeed that I am obsessed with studying literature. Let this fact shame others who do not know how to make use of their books so that they can’t provide anything from their reading to common profit or to make their benefit clear in sight.

Why, moreover, should I be ashamed when I have lived so many years in such a way that my hobby never prevented me from being useful to anyone at any time and its pleasure or sleepiness never distracted me or slowed me down? In what way, then, can anyone criticize me or censure me if if I am discovered to have spent that very same amount of time in pursuing these studies as others do without blame in pursuing profit, or in celebrating festivals or games, in seeking the pleasure and rest of the body and mind, or dragging out hours in dining, gambling or ballgames?”

Ego vero fateor me his studiis esse deditum: ceteros pudeat, si qui se ita litteris abdiderunt, ut nihil possint ex his neque ad communem adferre fructum neque in aspectum lucemque proferre: me autem quid pudeat, qui tot annos ita vivo, iudices, ut a nullius umquam me tempore aut commodo aut otium meum abstraxerit aut voluptas avocarit aut denique somnus retardarit? Qua re quis tandem me reprehendat aut quis mihi iure suscenseat, si, quantum ceteris ad suas res obeundas, quantum ad festos dies ludorum celebrandos, quantum ad alias voluptates et ad ipsam requiem animi et corporis conceditur temporum, quantum alii tribuunt tempestivis conviviis, quantum denique alveolo, quantum pilae, tantum mihi egomet ad haec studia recolenda sumpsero?

Cicero, Pro Archia 16

“But if this clear profit [of studying literature] is not clear and if entertainment alone should be sought from these pursuits, I still believe that you would judge them the most humanizing and enlightening exercise of the mind.

For other activities do not partake in all times, all ages, and all places—reading literature sharpens us in youth and comforts us in old age. It brings adornment to our successes and solace to our failures. It delights when we are at home and creates no obstacle for us out in the world. It is our companion through long nights, long journeys, and months in rural retreats.”

Quod si non hic tantus fructus ostenderetur et si ex his studiis delectatio sola peteretur, tamen, ut opinor, hanc animi adversionem humanissimam ac liberalissimam iudicaretis. Nam ceterae neque temporum sunt neque aetatum omnium neque locorum: haec studia adolescentiam acuunt,1 senectutem oblectant, secundas res ornant, adversis perfugium ac solacium praebent, delectant domi, non impediunt foris, pernoctant nobiscum, peregrinantur, rusticantur.

Image result for medieval manuscripts animals reading
BDLSS, MS 264, 14th c.

Sharing Blame: Professional Organizations and the ‘Death’ of the Humanities

Homer, Iliad 11.653-654

“Old man, you know well what kind of terrible person
That man is: he would even be quick to blame the blameless.”

εὖ δὲ σὺ οἶσθα γεραιὲ διοτρεφές, οἷος ἐκεῖνος
δεινὸς ἀνήρ· τάχα κεν καὶ ἀναίτιον αἰτιόῳτο.

Schol. bT ad Il. 11.654 ex

Blameless [corresponds] to swift to criticize [which he says later]. And he is explaining his temper, furnishing an excuse for himself in case he cannot persuade him.”

ἀναίτιον πρὸς τὸ „νεμεσητός” (Λ 649). ἐπιτείνει δὲ αὐτοῦ τὸ θυμικόν, συγγνώμην ἑαυτῷ ποριζόμενος τοῦ μὴ πεῖσαι αὐτόν. b(BCE3)T

The Chronicle has another article out on the death of the humanities-—this opinion piece is one variation on the genre that blames humanists (mostly tenured professors) for their (our) failure to react and adapt to save the profession (in this case history departments). I am reluctant to critique the piece too much, because the authors are early career scholars and because they are not wrong. The last generation of professors tenured has failed in any ways to rise to the occasion and rally in defense of the humanities.

And I totally agree that what the authors conclude for the AHA is applicable to the other major organizations as well: “The AHA must instead adopt a more active role that challenges the casualization of labor that has degraded academic work. The jobs crisis is not natural; it is a crisis of political economy caused by a series of decisions made by corporate, governmental, and, yes, academic elites over the past 50 years.”

Before I say anything else, let me be unequivocal about this: our professional organizations have either been incapable or unwilling to agitate for needed changes in employment and professional life over the last two generations. We have especially failed the last two decades of PhDs, a majority of whom work in less favorable and endurable conditions than the generation before them (if they are lucky enough to work in the field at all). And, we have failed to acknowledge and understand the economic and demographic challenges ahead of us.

At the same time, we have failed to help our students and future colleagues understand the way things are and might be. Let’s think about the last line quoted above: the corporations and governments. Academic elites? Sure, they—we—are all complicit in the system. But I would hazard a guess that no amount of concerted effort by this class over the last 50 years would make a difference at all.

Professional organizations are not equipped, funded, or designed to combat the base problem: an economic and political system that values utility and profit over humanity. All the professional organizations and all the professionals of the humanities could unite and the economic power we wield would still be less than a Bezos or Koch.

The scarcity of the academic job market and the ostentatious leap in ‘standards’ for employment, retention and tenure over the past generation has turned academic careers into zero sum exercises. The desperation and alienation that attends us at nearly every stage of our careers conditions us to turn on each other, to blame those who are closest and more familiar, instead of taking hard looks at the system itself. We use our considerable training to turn censorious voices against the younger generation or to attack the lazy complicity of the older one. It is as if we are the sown soldiers from the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, bewitched to assail one another and to never acknowledge the authors of our pain.

Based on the pabulum the Chronicle typically publishes, it does not surprise me that it would embrace and foster the kind of essay which leads the reader away from the systemic problems and towards the symptoms. It profits from perpetuating strife. The Chronicle’s nearly chronic administrative friendly and supply side reporting—when it is not salaciously reveling in scandals that make humanists look like fools—is indicative that it is reflective not of some professorial ideal or professional standard, but rather of the messy patchwork quilt of corporate and political interests that make up modern academia, combined as well with a 21st century’s news outlet’s desperation to print the news that gets the clicks.

“Why do we train our children in the liberal arts? It is not because these studies can grant someone virtue, but because they prepare the soul for accepting it.”

“Quare ergo liberalibus studiis filios erudimus?” Non quia virtutem dare possunt, sed quia animum ad accipiendam virtutem praeparant, Seneca, Moral Epistles 88.20

Here’s the truth, as I see it. Only two things can subvert the trends that are turning higher education into vocational factories for the lower classes and finishing schools for the 1%: huge amounts of money and collective action. Professional organizations lack the first tool by several orders of magnitude; when it comes to the second, as faculty we are so blinded, bruised, and psychologically mutilated by the system that has shaped us, that it is almost inconceivable that we would walk out collectively to protest something happening to colleagues in another discipline at another institution.

Almost every week—if not every day—there are indications of where the power and priorities of higher education now lie. From the recent heist of the humanities and the soul of the University of Tulsa, to Stanford University’s decision to enforce financial austerity on its own press, Harvard out-raising its goals by 50% to yield 9.6 Billion new dollars and then claiming austerity to freeze wages and health benefits for graduate students, evidence for a foundational shift of budgeting models in education is everywhere. Students and faculty are often overwhelmed by budgetary detail, but the essential framework that guides our institution is something that we should care about.

The classic model of a university budget is the “everything in one bucket” model which assumes that the institution will pay for all of its expenses from the same pot of money. This allows “profitable” segments of the university to offset the costs of other units and communicates either financial incompetence or a commitment to supporting the core values of an academic community without worrying about line-item costs. More and more universities, however, are following models that demand each school or academic unit have a balanced budget, or, even worse, meet externally imposed projections of growth. These ‘business models’ when applied incompetently or insidiously almost inevitably destroy the humanities, as is happening with the slow death of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Cincinnati.

While many Universities apply ‘hybrid’ models that try to balance institutional values against market demands (There are, of course, many models for university finance), the cumulative effect of proposing and then assuming and demanding that an educational institution work like a business will inevitably reduce Universities to massive displays of Coca Cola and Pepsi Products. We all know they are bad for us and, in truth, little different from each other, but we eventually buy them anyway. (But oh, wait, there’s artisanal soda at three times the price!)

Essays like the Chronicle’s that blame the players—even if we may be complicit, blind fools—and not the game actually work in service of the rhetorical regime that supports an oppressive dehumanizing system. The elegant rhetoric and fine argumentation are smoke and mirrors obscuring the fact that we don’t really understand the rules of the game. By blaming the historians and the field, we are claiming agency where we have none and making real action impossible.

Of course, when I tweeted about this last week, there was protest:

Humanities that do not force us to question our assumptions about what it means to be human and how we should best live together are dehumanizing and not worth saving. Period. As I have mentioned several times before, the subjects under the ax are those which help us see the ax and imagine different futures that don’t require the ax. It is not accidental that the proto-fascist Brazilian strongman, President Bolsonaro, wants to cut all funding to philosophy and sociology. We don’t (yet) have the same political regime, but we are in the same systemic danger.

“Let this be your business, let this be your leisure; let this be both your work and your rest.”

Hoc sit negotium tuum hoc otium; hic labor haec quies; in his vigilia, in his etiam somnus reponatur #Pliny

Scrooge McPindar

Speech for the Speechless

Photius, s.v. aphasia

“Wordlessness (aphasia): voicelessness (aphônia)

᾿Αφασία· ἀφωνία.

Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 1280-4

“Wretched brother, tell him what you need.
A multitude of words can be pleasurable,
Burdensome, or they can arouse pity somehow—
They give a kind of voice to the voiceless

έγ᾿, ὦ ταλαίπωρ᾿, αὐτὸς ὧν χρείᾳ πάρει.
τὰ πολλὰ γάρ τοι ῥήματ᾿ ἢ τέρψαντά τι,
ἢ δυσχεράναντ᾿, ἢ κατοικτίσαντά πως,
παρέσχε φωνὴν τοῖς ἀφωνήτοις τινά.

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Not Learning How to Read Will Corrupt You

In his “How a Young Man Ought to Listen to Poetry” (Quomodo Adolescens Poetas Audire Debeat; Moralia 14d-37b), Plutarch seems to take on earlier (read: Platonic) injunctions about the dangers posed by imitation.  Here, Plutarch suggests that it is equally perilous not to learn how to read properly:

“A young man should not be in the habit of praising any of these things [e.g. poetry that presents sacrilegious comments about the gods or instances of immortal behavior] nor should he practice offering excuses or be persuasive and persistent in devising certain conspicuous prevarications for improper actions. Instead, let him believe that poetry is the imitation of characters and lives of men who are not perfect nor holy not unimpeachable in all ways—in short of men who are afflicted by suffering, false beliefs and ignorance, but who, thanks to their innate nobility, may often change themselves for the better. This sort of training and perspective for a youth, one which makes him attuned to and excited at things done or said as well as resistant, even intolerant, of base deeds, will not visit harm upon audiences.

But a man who is amazed at everything, one who adapts himself to everything, because of some popular judgment is enchanted by the names of heroes, just like those men who imitate Plato’s bad posture or Aristotle’s lisp. Such a man is predisposed to much that is corrupting without knowing it.”

μηδὲν οὖν ἐπαινεῖν ἐθιζέσθω τοιοῦτον ὁ νέος, μηδὲ προφάσεις λέγων μηδὲ παραγωγάς τινας εὐπρεπεῖς ἐπὶ πράγμασι φαύλοις μηχανώμενος πιθανὸς ἔστω καὶ πανοῦργος, ἀλλ’ ἐκεῖνο μᾶλλον οἰέσθω, μίμησιν εἶναι τὴν ποίησιν ἠθῶν καὶ βίων, καὶ ἀνθρώπων οὐ τελείων οὐδὲ καθαρῶν οὐδ’ ἀνεπιλήπτων παντάπασιν, ἀλλὰ μεμιγμένων πάθεσι καὶ δόξαις ψευδέσι καὶ ἀγνοίαις, διὰ δ’ εὐφυΐαν αὑτοὺς πολλάκις μετατιθέντων πρὸς τὸ κρεῖττον. ἡ γὰρ τοιαύτη παρασκευὴ τοῦ νέου καὶ διάνοια, τοῖς μὲν εὖ λεγομένοις καὶ πραττομένοις ἐπαιρομένου καὶ συνενθουσιῶντος, τὰ δὲ φαῦλα μὴ προσιεμένου καὶ δυσχεραίνοντος, ἀβλαβῆ παρέξει τὴν ἀκρόασιν. ὁ δὲ πάντα θαυμάζων καὶ πᾶσιν ἐξοικειούμενος καὶ καταδεδουλωμένος τῇ δόξῃ τὴν κρίσιν ὑπὸ τῶν ἡρωϊκῶν ὀνομάτων, ὥσπερ οἱ τὴν Πλάτωνος ἀπομιμούμενοι κυρτότητα καὶ τὴν ᾿Αριστοτέλους τραυλότητα, λήσεται πρὸς πολλὰ τῶν φαύλων εὐχερὴς γενόμενος.