The Humanities in Crisis
In higher education the political and partisan battles, so hardened, are of less concern to me than the ideological ones, which run deeper, to my mind. Genuine openness to debate is what often gets crushed out of existence in my experience of English departments.
The “culture wars,” as so often construed on “both sides,” amount to too narrow a slice of human experience, in my view, which is much of the problem. The culture of the humanities is deadlocked in narrow terms and thinking. I think too that the humanities today have become based on a far too limited conception of the humanities, in our extremely fragmented society, accepting a meta-narrative, an ideology, that actually works against the humanities, while closing off to other views of life that might help reinvigorate them and help reach people more broadly with the serious reflection that the liberal arts at their best are capable of offering.
Human experience is much deeper and profound than what the humanities have come to allow in our time, creating a disharmony that has deeply damaged itself and contemporary culture. One often hears the underlying fear implicit in the humanities as a backward movement to fundamentalism, Christian or otherwise, as though there were no other possibilities. Academic secular formalism and nihilism, however, are just fine, and almost invariably the prescribed ideology.
The ideological issues at stake on *both sides* are flawed, neither allowing a full debate, since each is stuck in categories of thought grounded in exclusivism. Following Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence, I believe the extreme polarization of our time is what’s the most telling, though disturbing, fact, and is the clearest evidence of decadence, exactly what the humanities today so rarely considers, conceiving and caricaturing it again only in terms redolent of right-wing Christian fundamentalism.
My argument isn’t against the university or what is salutary from the Enlightenment, but to point out the flaws on all sides and the way we can make relatively modest adjustments in our thinking and culture that would help resolve our endemic crises. Unfortunately, in my experience, the humanities remain closed off to any real debate, virtually guaranteeing their continuing decline.
I feel saddened by what’s happened to the humanities. It’s partly why for the past forty years I’ve continued to study and write my poetry and essays… struggling for, I’d like to think, a whole new way of looking at modern experience and our many problems. The difficulty that I’ve had is finding capable readers willing to consider a serious literary and cultural vision other than what’s become dominant. Seeking unity in a time of extreme fragmentation, I constantly run up against the experience of one syllable closing minds on all sides. Eventually, it drove me to the moon…