Who Ruined the Humanities: A Response to Lee Siegel’s WSJ Essay

Reading Walden?

In his recent WSJ essay[1], Lee Siegel argues that it is acceptable and perhaps even laudable that the humanities are falling out of college curriculums as fewer and fewer students choose to major in the classical liberal arts such as: English, History, Philosophy, Classics, and Theology. I think he’s dead wrong. Though I appreciate the main point, which is that literature belongs to everyday life and is not something that ought to languish locked in an academic safe.

Siegel’s argument goes as follows:

”The classroom also ruins literature’s joys, as well as trivializing its jolting dissents.”

“Every other academic subject requires specialized knowledge and a mastery of skills and methods. Literature requires only that you be human. It does not have to be taught any more than dreaming has to be taught.”

Here’s what Siegel’s right about:

1)      Reading novels, attending plays and soaking in poetry is truly something that is part of a good human life, and these activities should be within the purview of all humans in all walks of life.

2)      He’s also right that the treatment of literature in today’s universities doesn’t do it justice and tends rather towards over-analyzing, deconstructing, and generally vivisecting the life out of worthy books.

Here’s where he’s wrong: 

1)      Mr. Siegel’s argument only applies to literature, not all the humanities (or liberal arts) as the title suggests. In the main body of the text, there is no mention of any of the other subjects (history, philosophy, classics, theology). This is actually rather important. It’s true that literature fits well into an ordinary life well-lived, though few people nowadays (or ever) actually spend the time on it (which is my second point).

  1. But the other subjects, particularly history and philosophy, are (or should be) very demanding disciplines that do profit students who are willing to attend them rigorously.
  2. Philosophy, good philosophy, for instance, is a logical description of reality that helps us clarify our words, morality and understanding of our world.
  3. Take Aristotle’s theory of change: in all change, something stays the same that can still be recognized as the original object, but something about it changes. The object itself is substance; its changeable properties are its “accidents.” Thus I, Stephanie, am a human woman with a soul. That’s my substance. My accidents are my brown hair, age, height, etc. My accidents can change while my substance remains the same.
  4. This might be a silly example, but Aristotle’s philosophy is not something to be dismissed. It is a powerful tool for describing reality and drawing conclusions about it, particularly for morality. The teleological virtue ethics of the Nichomachean ethics have not been and will never be surpassed as coherent moral philosophy, save for their integration with Christ’s teachings by St. Thomas Aquinas.
  5. Aristotle, Plato, especially the Republic, and indeed, the whole canon of philosophy also contain myriad insights that we are only better for knowing.
  6. But they are difficult. Philosophy, good philosophy that is, is a tough subject. Good teaching through college courses is an aid to liberating the wisdom of philosophical texts for citizens and for society. Bad philosophy, or the wishy-washy “life (and everything else) means whatever you think it does,” is merely a hindrance to and a parasite on logical, informed thinking. The difference between the two is essential.
  7. Siegel is wrong because the good of the humanities goes far beyond literature, and because the humanities truly do benefit us when they hold a respected place in the classroom. If only literature were disappearing from college, as he seems to think, it would still be a troubling trend, but less so. The vast weight of the liberal arts is a loss that we should not extol, but mourn sincerely.

2)      The second reason Siegel is wrong is that most of us don’t actually spend much free time reading the literary giants and being inspired by a lonely cloud or the contemplative path less taken.

  1. We are a nation who spends free time clicking around on facebook and watching TV or youtube videos, not to mention laughing at those oh-so-hilarious memes with pictures of cats. (I mock these pursuits sanctimoniously while I nevertheless wait with baited breath for Caturday).
  2. And we are not usual. Humans far too infrequently spend their time bettering themselves with literature, though this is of course, a worthy pursuit and an excellent use of time.
  3. Because we are so distractable, it’s actually a great thing that literature and all the liberal arts retain a haven in academic zones. At least there we pay homage to their value. And for many of us, school is perhaps the only place where we will encounter the poems of Yeats, the plays of Shakespeare and the novels of Tolstoy.
  4. At least in school, we can learn about these cultural and humanistic giants. And for most of us, it’s because of school that we know about them at all. Of course, though, many parents are model tutors and instruct the children in religious tradition and meaningful literature. Even if every parent were perfect (and of course we are not), there would still be value in deeply examining philosophy, language, history and story in an academic setting.

3)      Siegel says that undergraduates who pass over literature are instead preferring to “find to a cure for cancer.” Most students do not offer such a rosy cause for hope.

  1. I wish he were right, but there aren’t actually many students majoring in the hard sciences because of deep, humane motivations.
  2. Instead, people choose graphic design or psychology, which can be done well and have their place, but generally aren’t so conscientiously motivated or as broad-minded as the classics nor as solidly disciplined as the empirical sciences.
  3. Generally, when students shun the humanities, it’s not because they are doing something more useful with their time. It’s usually because they are out partying.

So Siegel is well-intentioned but wrong. Literature is indeed a wonderful thing that is sometimes damaged by scholars’ heavy-handed treatment. Nevertheless, the whole range of liberal arts is incredibly wise and worth absorbing. And because society is overly focused on entertainment, we would do well to at least permit the liberal arts to retain their hallowed pedestal in the academic halls.

Is it significant that fewer students major in the liberal arts? Are we losing/gaining something? What societal factors perhaps contribute to this trend?


[1] Weekend, July 13-14. Wall Street Journal. C1

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