Mark Edmundson raises a provocative question in his new book: Why Teach? (Bloomsbury Press, 2013). How is it possible that this question has any saliency? Edmundson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia and he is expressing concern about the humanities, humanities education and the whole enterprise of liberal arts education. Are the humanities relevant in the age of smartboards and career minded students?
Here at Lewis, we are sponsoring a semester long series of events called the “Celebration of Humanities” as part of our ongoing Arts and Ideas programming. Poets, musicians, artists, theologians, historians, philosophers will use their presentations to demonstrate their expertise, to showcase culture, to deepen understanding. Are we responding to the crisis that Edmundson presents or there something more going on? I’d argue that the perceived “crisis” is something else. It’s normal. The fluctuation in the brute numbers of “majors” in the humanities is a very old story and not a cause for panic.
Universities have been organized since about 1100. They were the sort of technical finishing school that provided Europe in the Middle Ages with priests, lawyers and physicians. The liberal arts were the foundation. Grammar for correct speech, logic for reasoning, rhetoric for persuasion, and additionally, the university taught arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. This formed an educated person.
The humanities, however, arrive two centuries later and become the “study of man” with the revolutionary ideas of the Renaissance. DaVinci’s Vitruvian man stands as an emblem of that new interest in man, in being human, in understanding who we are and what we think. My colleague Mark Schultz put it this way: “The pursuit of the humanities broadens the soul, sharpens the mind, and brings us into the deepest conversations that concern our species.”
So, why teach? Yes, to get a practical education (the seven liberal arts and their equivalents today), but yes, it is also to understand what makes us human. Declared “majors” come and go, but our intrinsic search for human values endures.