Oh, the humanities!

Cultural alienation and the humanities.

Francesco P. Rahe

January 5, 2024

Imagine a bus, on a hot, dusty day somewhere in America, loading up passengers for a 12-hour road trip. Due to a canceled Amtrak train, this particular bus is packed with extra passengers. Consequently, everyone finds themselves sitting next to someone else. Imagine two of these seat partners. Let us suppose that one is wealthy and the other poor, that they belong not only to separate generations, but are also of different ethnicities and come from different regions of the US. And now they are stuck together for 12 hours—assuming their bus doesn’t get trapped in a traffic jam. What on earth will these two find to talk about?

The unfortunate answer is, probably not very much. Assuming these two speak the same language, even the words they use will connote different educational levels. They will have both taken math in school, though likely with varying qualities of instruction, but no one strikes up a conversation about algebra word problems. One may have read the Iliad, but given the limited availability of intensive humanities programs today, almost certainly only the wealthier one. Our friends on the bus might both be Americans, but for all intents and purposes, they belong to different cultures.

This has earthshaking political implications. The importance of a political community having a shared identity is expressed vividly by the Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun in the Muqaddimah. Khaldun uses the term “group-feeling” (or asabiyyah) to denote the solidarity or sense of togetherness that a successful tribe must have. He describes group-feeling as most powerfully coming from blood relations, though it can also come from prolonged closeness with one’s comrades. As an example, if your little brother or your trusted soccer teammate needed financial assistance, you would be much more likely to help them—even if you find them both annoying—than to similarly assist a random stranger. Without group-feeling, a community will be easily defeated. Centuries later, Khaldun’s point remains relevant: an army with no sense of unity is much more likely to lose in a fight when up against a more cohesive force. However, the tie that blood relations or prolonged closeness created in Khaldun’s period is impossible to replicate today. Americans today are unlikely to share family ties, let alone affinity for a hometown or even an ethnicity. Our friends on the bus will have next to no sense of group-feeling.

Their dilemma is deeply intertwined with another issue which has been at the forefront of university news for the past year: namely, the fall of humanities education. While the pair might have found a shared identity through the humanities, the nationwide decline of serious humanistic studies presents a trend likely to only deepen their sense of alienation. For just a few recent examples, at the time of writing: Gettysburg College has shut down the famous Gettysburg Review due to costs; Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, is reappraising 18 undergraduate majors, mostly in the humanities; Harvard recently considered consolidating three language majors into one super-major thanks to lack of student interest; West Virginia University recently eliminated 143 faculty positions and 28 academic programs, the vast majority of which were in the humanities; rural universities are disproportionately slashing their humanities majors; and the New Yorker practically held a funeral last year for the English major with the essay “The End of the English Major.” Even the University of Chicago has recently faced criticism from one of its own professors, Clifford Ando, for underfunding the humanities. In short, among state legislatures, university administrations, and students themselves, none seem to have faith in the value of a humanities degree. Even professed advocates of the humanities, from literature professors to cultural pundits, are in a state of baffled distress. Naturally, most literature professors will agree that their field’s destruction is a bad thing. Why that is—as well as what caused this destruction in the first place—are much more contested issues.

Some blame the decline in humanities education on right-wing resentment, claiming it is a by-product of the culture wars that have consumed school libraries for the past few years. Republican legislators undeniably have supported budget cuts in the humanities, as well as eliminated majors like gender studies at the New College of Florida. Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has even argued that if liberals want to save the humanities, they need to start acceding to conservative demands. However, while it is true that culture-war politics are intertwined with the decline of humanities education, Republicans are not the primary culprit. Humanities education was dying out a long time ago, not only in universities, and not only due to the calls of conservatives.

President Obama, early in his administration, made STEM a priority for K–12 education, citing its importance for the nation’s future. The left-leaning New York Times as of late has published numerous articles extolling the “science of reading” technique to teach reading—which may well be effective, but given its name, is clearly not trying to appeal to or produce future humanities majors. The number of foreign language programs from middle schools to colleges has been dropping like a stone since the late nineties. Notably, this statistic comes from an article in which a linguist argues that foreign language education is no longer necessary given technology like Google Translate. In sum, while countless factors underlie the decline in humanities education, the fact that the humanities are no longer seen as having practical value, especially in comparison to STEM subjects, might be the most significant one.

Unfortunately, many arguments made in favor of the humanities tend not to help the matter. University of Chicago philosophy professor Agnes Callard recently admitted in a New York Times column that she has no idea whatsoever why the humanities are useful—a point perhaps admirable for its honesty, but hardly helpful. Meanwhile, in a 2021 New Yorker article, Harvard English professor Louis Menand ripped apart some of the most common arguments for the humanities propounded by Roosevelt Montás, a lecturer at Columbia, and Arnold Weinstein, a professor of literature at Brown. Both Montás and Weinstein adhered to the idea that the humanities provide insight into the human condition which a physics class, for example, would be hard-pressed to give. Menand, however, expressed skepticism that there was any more moral insight provided by taking a humanities class than by taking an economics class. He suggested the humanities overcome their limited enrollments by changing to fit the times and becoming more interdisciplinary (that is, less “humanities”). Montás and Weinstein failed because they did not address Menand’s practical concerns. It is one thing to claim eloquently, even correctly, that a class on Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov will change your life; it is another thing to prove it to someone who has never read Dostoyevsky, would like a proper sample size to back up your answer, and would also like to know how much said class impacted your future employment options. Like it or not, if the humanities are to survive, they need to prove their practical—rather than moral—worth.

Despite the claim that conservatives are the primary culprit behind the humanities’ decline, it is actually one particular segment of conservatives who most understand the practical worth of the humanities: namely, the Christian right. Hillsdale College, a Michigan liberal arts college behind much of the current culture-war legislation, is also a fervent proponent of classical education. It runs a huge network of charter schools and hosts an annual Classical Schools Job Fair, where its students are encouraged to take on teaching jobs in fields ranging from Latin to English literature. Even beyond Hillsdale, conservative think tanks offer a vast array of humanities-focused summer fellowships in which enterprising young college students can read Plato all summer, something their left-wing counterparts have not replicated. As an alumnus of Hillsdale College’s lab school, Hillsdale Academy, I can confirm that my humanities education was very rich. I read the entirety of Dante’s Divine Comedy in tenth grade, and arrived at university better versed in the humanities than many of my contemporaries who attended far more elite high schools. Nevertheless, I can simultaneously say that the perspective embodied in culture war legislation carries over in the Christian right’s humanities model. During my time at Hillsdale Academy, I read next to no non-white or LGBT authors, as well as very few authors who disagreed with Christian or conservative worldviews. I may have been familiar with Dante in high school, but I couldn’t have said anything about Islam, Marx, or Toni Morrison.

The reason behind both the Christian right’s embrace of the humanities—and their careful decision to embrace only the Western European, Christian branch of the humanities—is the very same reason why the humanities need to be protected. It is not that the humanities confer life with meaning, though this may be true. It is not that the humanities cement critical thinking skills, though this may also be true. The humanities should be kept because they play a key role in the formation of a nation-state. Put differently, humanities education offers a path through which America can reclaim a sense of shared national identity.

This might seem, at first glance, a rather ludicrous claim. However, if we return to our friends on the bus, arguably their most promising topics of conversation lie in the humanities. While the weather and algebra word problems dry up as conversation topics pretty quickly, perfect strangers can bond over a shared affection for Taylor Swift or Succession. The key word there, however, is “shared.” Anyone who has ever perused Netflix is likely aware of the incalculable number of TV shows and of the algorithms that uncannily work out which shows we’d like. While megahits might reach more of the US population than most shows or singers, their appeal is still often stratified by factors like age, gender, and race. The mere existence of the humanities—including books, music, television, and movies—cannot mend cultural alienation. However, a standardized humanities education could make a significant difference.

Societies outside of the United States have fostered a shared culture through intensive literary education for millennia. In a 2021 article in New Lines Magazine, writer and translator Muhammad Ali Mojaradi discusses the role of poetry in Iranian culture. He describes how children are taught from an early age to memorize Persian poetry, and how Iranians consequently see themselves as inheritors of a shared past, rather than, as he describes Americans, every generation starting with a blank slate. As Maboud Ansari points out in his book The Iranian Americans: A Popular Social History of a New American Ethnic Group, Persian poetry nights—a tradition in which Persian poetry is recited—remain an integral way for members of the Iranian diaspora to preserve cultural connections despite remaining far from their homeland.

The role of the humanities in shaping national identity in some ways clarifies the current culture war fights. I mentioned earlier that the Christian right extols a specific subset of the humanities—that is, works produced by people who are white, European, or Christian. This in turn creates a sense of national identity based on those characteristics. If you were to ask my classmates in high school what defined America, they would likely have pointed to George Washington, the Puritans, and the cultural legacy of ancient Greece and Rome. The Japanese internment camps or W. E. B. Du Bois would not have received a mention because our education didn’t include them. LGBT identities were seen as contrary to the image of America that Hillsdale College wished to promote, so we were also never taught about Stonewall. Given that we lived in a predominantly white, Christian, rural area and our education did not depart from this, our cultural consciousness was built on an understanding of America as a white, Christian nation. Of course, as our two seatmates on the bus could attest, America is far more complex than that. The Christian right’s humanities curriculum, because of its inaccurate portrayal of contemporary America, cannot solve the problem of cultural alienation.

My point is not that the hallmarks of the Christian right’s curriculum—Plato, Aquinas, Washington, Twain—need to be tossed aside. There is and always will be a place for this part of the Western tradition in the US. My point is instead that a humanities curriculum also needs to display the rest of the American experience. One can read European medieval authors while also acknowledging the massive debt they owe to Arab philosophers. Zora Neale Hurston and Ralph Ellison shaped contemporary America no less than Thoreau or Hawthorne.

Those concerned about ChatGPT’s ominous presence at the back of our cultural horizon need rest assured there are still ways to intensely study the humanities. As someone who was forced to memorize reams of poetry in school and consequently can never eat a peach without thinking of T. S. Eliot, I think we should take a leaf from Iran and make poetry memorization a commonplace feature of our education system again. If this makes the humanities more difficult, that is a good thing. People tend to take things more seriously when they are seen as requiring dedication. Furthermore, building enthusiasm for the humanities requires teaching it as what it is: the humanities. If seventy percent of an English class curriculum is nonfiction, as in some iterations of the twelfth-grade Common Core curriculum, it takes away much of the joy of that class, and only encourages students to think less of the humanities. Students who only read excerpts of novels to build critical thinking skills will never be able to actually incorporate those novels into their cultural consciousnesses; students who fall head over heels into the lives of the characters they read about, as I did in high school, will never forget them.

We live in a time of immense demographic and societal change, a time when it is more important than ever to forge a sense of cultural togetherness. This could be seen as a time to panic, but I think it is more accurate to see it as a time of opportunity. For high school students to read both Rumi and Shakespeare would not constitute a loss, but a gain. What it means to be an American is not being forgotten, but rather rediscovered. This rediscovery cannot happen solely within a chemistry lab or an economics classroom; it requires culture, and such things as the Pythagorean theorem are not culturally dependent. Ask a German what it means to be German, and at one time, he would have quoted Goethe. Ask an Iranian today, and she might quote Forough Farrokhzad. What does it mean to be an American? The future of American identity lies in literature, history, and the arts, and our education systems need to reflect that.

Let us close by picturing our friends on the bus again, but in a slightly different scenario. Imagine a world in which both people—in addition to everyone else on the bus—received an intensive humanities education, with a curriculum that addressed the ways all of their identities contributed to the shared American experience. In this new world, the strangers have both read James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and can recite from heart Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and Emily Dickinson’s “‘Hope’ Is the Thing With Feathers.” Obviously, this will not bridge all gaps, but it may bridge some. Having read the same books and memorized the same poems, the two will have a shared framework to inform the way they view the world. Rather than coming from completely alien cultures, they will see each other as part of a shared American tradition. At the very least, they will have something to talk about.

Francesco P. Rahe is a contributing editor at The Harper Review and a third-year undergraduate at the University of Chicago studying religion and the Near East.