May 10, 2010
Cuts in the Humanities
— Martin E. Marty
“Why Cuts in Humanities Teaching Pose a Threat to Democracy Itself” is the subhead for an article titled “Skills for Life” in the April 30th Times Literary Supplement, authored by the University of Chicago’s (and the world’s) Martha Nussbaum. Such headlines can evoke everything from an “Oh, come now!” to a yawn among those who are not professionals in the Humanities, or those who are oblivious of them, which often seem to be “almost everybody.” And they raise the question: “What does that have to do with ‘public religion’," which we keep in our sights for Sightings? In a world of religion-connected explosions and conflicts, why sit back for a week and take on such a quiet, scholarly subject?
“Humanities” officially belongs in our scope since 1965 when President Johnson signed into law a bill creating the National Endowment for the Humanities, in which Congress listed “literature, history, languages, archaeology, philosophy,” et cetera, including “comparative religion.” We were not all sure what that two-word discipline included, recalling Archbishop William Temple’s quip that “there is no such thing as comparative religion; there are only people who are comparatively religious.” Still, we all snuggled under the tent-roof of the Humanities, seeing religious studies prosper a little bit and religion find some place in public programs nationally and in all fifty states. And now?
“We are in the midst of a crisis of massive proportions and grave global significance. I do not mean the global economic crisis…I mean a crisis that goes largely unnoticed, but is likely to be, in the long run, far more damaging to the future of democratic self-government, a worldwide crisis in education,” which hits the humanities hardest. A crisis worse than the economic one? Again, “Oh, come now, Professor Nussbaum!” Is she crying wolf? I was on the Commission on the Humanities between 1978 and 1980, and got used to seeing the words “Crisis in…” always connected with the noun “the Humanities.” This time is it worse, is it scarier? Nussbaum makes her case.
Some of the crisis is within the Humanities, as critics among the disciplines question the turns some of them have taken toward post-modern nihilism and anti-humanism. But while the professors are fighting among themselves over such, colleges and universities are cutting back hiring, budgets, curricula, and set-priorities in them globally. As Nussbaum shows, much of the higher academic redirection is motivated by societal interest in developing nothing but market-ready professions, to prepare citizenries for soulless if technologically adept and sophisticated cultures. There is a low premium placed on wider and deeper forms of knowledge. Nussbaum: “Knowledge is no guarantee of good behavior, but ignorance is a virtual guarantee of bad behavior.”
Relevant to our subject, she adds: “Responsible citizenship…requires the ability…to appreciate the complexities of the major world religions.” Some Americans talk a good line about such matters, and others find it opportune to dis-appreciate such complexities of all religions but one’s own – attacking one or another of them as “evil” and wicked, from top to bottom, thus promoting ignorance and hatred, which exacerbate conflict. “Today we still maintain that we like democracy and self-governance, and we also think that we like freedom of speech, respect for difference, and understanding of others. We give these values lip service, but we think far too little about what we need to do in order to transmit them to the next generation and ensure their survival.” Time to hug your English teachers or philosophers, and support them, against all odds? Yes.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.