The Tragedy of Humanistic Protest
The Chronicle of Higher Education (online version) saturates readers with the complaints of humanists who seem to envy the relatively "good fortunes" of their colleagues in STEM-disciplines. For example, the historian L. D. Burnett moaned in the August 12 issue that the public and policy makers "view the purpose of college as purely vocational, and see humanistic inquiry -- the study of literature, the arts, history, anthropology, philosophy -- as a waste of time and money." According to Burnett, it is urgent that we "defend the place of the humanities in higher education…defend the opportunity for our students to grapple with ideas and questions of enduring value." Do American students not deal with such ideas and questions prior to entering colleges and universities; do they not practice critical thinking while they are still in a state of lower education? And if they do not, should we not ask hard questions about where waste of time and money is actually located in American society and its forms of education? Instead of demanding that readers interrogate (severely question) the energy-draining tragedy of humanistic protest, CHE and other publications broadcast the tragedy with tacit alacrity.
Perhaps this shortcoming is "normal" in the contexts of terrorism, the expanding gap between wealth and poverty, the banality of dying, and ecological imbalance. Unfortunately, Burnett and some other humanists err in their annoying protests about the legitimacy of vocation in the training of the human mind. It is disingenuous to pretend that people who value what is practical and necessary in the conduct of daily economic, social and cultural operations are guilty of (1) being aliterate, (2) never having aesthetic experiences in museums and art galleries, (3) ignoring the importance of temporal and spatial narratives, (4) dismissing the findings of anthropology, or (5) being immune to abstract speculation. Indeed, it is fair to suspect that humanists who traffic with such pretense are either willfully tendentious or enthralled by a tragic sense of life or both.
Job preparedness and acquiring cognitive and physical skill-sets are not necessarily segregated from pleasures that resist quantification. Enlightened humanists should protest less and work harder (in concert with non-humanistic colleagues) to forge pre-future projects wherein the humanities and the sciences cooperate in seeking the ultimate ends of human existence.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. August 13, 2016