What’s so great about Great-Books courses?

Undergraduate teachers, regardless of their education, can play a role as a transition parent figure, someone to talk to students who are unaware of their personal or social lives, someone who will give them the keys to the car without question. And students benefit from learning how universities work and discussing what the university is for. It opens up the experience for them, gives the system some transparency and the students some freedom of choice.

So why the tsuris? Right now, great book-type courses—that is, courses that emphasize primary texts and student relativity rather than scientific literature and disciplinary training—are part of the higher education landscape. Few colleges need them, but many colleges are happy to offer them. The quarrel between generalist and specialist – or, as it is sometimes framed in the trenches, between dilettante and pedantic – is over a hundred years old and it seems that this is not a quarrel that one side has to win. However, Montás and Weinstein believe that the conflict is existential and that the future of academic humanities is at stake. Are they right?

Between 2012 and 2019, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded annually in English decreased by twenty-six percent, in philosophy and religious studies by twenty-five percent and in foreign languages ​​and literature by twenty-four percent. In English, according to the Association of Departments of English, which tracked the numbers through 2016, research universities, such as Brown and Columbia, got the biggest hits. More than half reported a drop in degrees of 40 percent or more in just four years.

The trend is nationwide. Of course, some departments have retained market share and creative writing classes seem to be popular everywhere. But in general, students have largely stopped taking humanities courses. Only eight percent of students entering Harvard College this fall plan to major in the arts and humanities, a department with twenty-one bachelor’s degrees.

Declining student interest is also affecting doctoral programs, which is crucial, because doctoral programs are the reproductive organs of the whole system. Fewer PhD students are admitted, because the labor market for humanities PhD students is shrinking. More importantly, no one knows how to teach the students that do come in. If courses in the traditional subfields of literary studies (medieval poetry, early modern drama, the eighteenth-century novel, etc.) do not attract students, shouldn’t new PhD students be trained differently? If so, who will do that, since the faculties are largely trained in the traditional subareas themselves?

And even if you could completely redesign a doctoral program, it takes at least six years to earn a Ph.D. in the humanities (median time is more than nine years) and a minimum of six more years to gain tenure. An academic discipline is a great ship to turn, especially when it goes into the water.

Montás and Weinstein do not mention these figures. They don’t actually mention numbers because even if things went well, it wouldn’t make any difference to them. But this is the real context in which they publish their books. This is when they have chosen to inform readers that academic humanists are not doing their job. “Liberal education is compromised and in danger,” Montás said. “Too often liberal education professionals—professors and university administrators—have corrupted their activities by subordinating the fundamental goals of education to specialized academic pursuits that have meaning only within their own institutional and career aspirations.” “Damaged” is a pretty big word.

What humanists should learn, Montás and Weinstein believe, is self-knowledge. Knowing yourself is the right goal. Art and literature, as Weinstein puts it, “are intended for personal use, not in the sense of self-help, but as mirrors, as access to who we ourselves are or could be.” Montás says, “A humanities teacher can give students no greater gift than the revelation of the self as a primary object of lifelong inquiry.” You don’t need research to learn this. Research is irrelevant. You just need good books and a charismatic instructor.

For the proponents of liberal culture, a century ago, philology was the false god of the literature departments. Today the false god is “theory.” Montás laments that contemporary theory – he calls it “postmodernism” – undermines the college’s educational mission by questioning terms such as “truth” and “virtue.” A postmodernist, in his definition, is a person who believes that there is no truth with a capital T, that ‘true’ is just the compliment that those in power pay for their own beliefs. “This detachment of human reason from the possibility of ultimate truth actually undermines all of Western metaphysics,” he tells us, “including ethics.” (He attributes all this to Friedrich Nietzsche, whom he calls “Satan’s most astute theologian,” which is an amazing thing to say. Nietzsche wanted to free people to embrace life, not send them to hell. He didn’t believe in hell. Or theology.)

Weinstein’s critique of the theory is somewhat less apocalyptic. To him, theory represents a desperate and misguided attempt – he calls it “the latest state of the humanities” – to introduce rigor and objectivity into literary studies. He believes that strictness and objectivity have no place in a bachelor’s degree in literature. “You won’t find many of them in my class,” he assures us. “In my crazier moments, I think rigor is akin to rigor mortis.”

But questioning the meaning of accepted values ​​has been a major theme in Western thought since Socrates, and “truth” and “virtue” were never exempt. Postmodernism is not a license for shoplifting. People who see “truth” and “virtue” as functions of power relations are generally hyperethical, because they see power differences everywhere. Postmodernists don’t run red lights any more than evangelicals.

And if, as these authors maintain, education is about self-knowledge and the nature of good, what should those things look like? How do we know them when we get there? What does it mean to be human? What exactly is the good life?

Oh, they can’t say that. The whole thing is unspeakable. We should know better than to expect answers. That is quantitative thinking. “The value of the thing,” explains Montás of liberal education, “cannot be extracted and delivered without the experience of the thing.” The bottom line of literature, Weinstein says, is that there is no bottom line. It all sounds a lot like “Trust us. We can’t explain it, but we know what we’re doing.”

When the modern university was founded, science was the big winner. The big loser was not literature. It was religion. The university is a secular institution and scientific research – more generally, the production of new knowledge – is what it was designed for. All scientific disciplines were organized with this in mind. Philology prevailed in literature departments because philology was scientific. It represented a research agenda that could yield reproducible results. Weinstein is not wrong if he thinks that critical theory has played the same role. It is intended to make the literary analysis more rigorous.

For Montás and Weinstein, however, science is the enemy of ethical insight and self-knowledge. Science instrumentalises, quantifies, reduces life to elements that are, well, negotiable. Weinstein can see that students may think science courses are helpful for career success, but he thinks “success” is just another false idol. He writes: ‘Much has been read about ‘quants’ who are swallowed by investment firms, hired on the basis of their mathematical prowess, and therefore probably contribute to profits. What does a bottom line actually mean? Does anyone ask for judgment? Does a college or graduate school transcript even say anything about judgment? Values? Priorities? Ethics?”

Weinstein won’t even call what students learn in science courses “knowledge.” He calls it ‘information’, which he thinks has nothing to do with how one should live. “Life is more than reason or data,” he tells us, “and literature teaches us in another set of matters, the matters of the heart and soul that have little difficulty with information as such.”

For Montás, the problem with science is that it answers the important questions: Who am I? How will I live? – in ‘purely materialistic terms’. He attributes this to a writer, René Descartes, who died in 1650. “Today, the heirs to Descartes’ project are perhaps most visible in Silicon Valley,” Montás says, “but the ethic underlying his approach is pervasive in the wider culture, including college culture.”

What did Descartes write that set us on the path to Facebook? He wrote that scientific knowledge can lead to medical discoveries that improve health and extend life. Montás calls this proposition ‘Faustian’. He says it implies that there is “no higher value than the sustenance and satisfaction of the self,” and that this is what students are taught today.

Humanists cannot win a war against science. They shouldn’t be waging a war on science. They should defend their role in the knowledge business and not stand aside in the name of unspecified and unspecified higher things. They need to connect with disciplines outside the humanities, to get out of their silos.

Art and literature have cognitive value. They are accounts of the way people have understood experience. They tell us something about the world. But they are not privileged records. A social psychology lesson can be just as revealing and inspiring as a lesson on the novel. The idea that students develop greater empathy by reading books in literature classes about people who never existed than they can by taking classes in subject areas that study real-life human behavior doesn’t make much sense.


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