The Health of the Humanities, Again

May 31, 2010

Jonathan Spence, emeritus professor of History at Yale, gave this year’s Jefferson Lecture recently in Washington, D.C.  The Jefferson Lecture is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the opportunity to deliver it is a signal honor.

Spence’s lecture, entitled “When Minds Met: China and the West in the Seventeenth Century,” is well worth reading, but you probably need an abiding love of History to enjoy and appreciate it.

The occasion put me in mind of last year’s Jefferson Lecture, delivered by Leon Kass, and entitled “Searching for an Honest Man: Reflections of an Unlicensed Humanist.”  Kass has graduate degrees in medicine and biochemistry: that’s what he means in calling himself an “unlicensed humanist.”  I believe the lecture is worth a wide reading.  Kass began his lecture by deploring the current state of the Humanities by arguing that at American colleges and universities today “a professed interest in human nature and human excellence — or, more generally, in truth and goodness — invites reactions ranging from mild ridicule for one’s naiveté to outright denunciation for one’s attraction to such discredited and dangerous notions.”

His lecture makes a robust case for the Humanities, for pursuing the question of what makes a human being, the fullest and best sense of the word.  Towards the end, he notes that the Humanities came to be so described in contradistinction to the “divinities,” theology and metaphysics.  He notes that “this separation at first liberated humanists from dogma and censorship, allowing for several centuries of profound thought and beautiful writing about the human condition and its possible flourishing.”

But he concludes that “the direction of humanistic learning in my lifetime — culminating in a cynical tendency to disparage the great ideas and to deconstruct the great works that we have inherited from ages past — invites this question: Can the humanities preserve their true dignity and answer their true calling if they close off or ignore questions of ultimate concern: the character and source of the cosmic whole and the place and work of the human being within it? Can we humanists complete our search for the human being without lifting our gaze, without looking beyond what human beings alone have wrought, to consider the powers not of our making that are the condition of the possibility of both the world and our special place within it?”

Kass draws heavily on Aristotle in his lecture, and especially on the Nichomachean Ethics, which endears him to me.  But whatever your fondness for Aristotle, I urge you to read Kass’s Jefferson Lecture as a bracing and uplifting defense of the Humanities.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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