A Proposal to Establish a
Program for the Defense of the Humanistic Disciplines
in Higher Education
Robert Paul Wolff
Emeritus Professor of Philosophy and
University of Massachusetts Amherst
Organized centers of humanistic learning have been a feature of Western civilization since the founding of Plato's Academy in the fourth century B. C. In the middle ages, wandering bands of scholars and students established what we now call universities not only in Europe but in the Islamic world as well. By the late nineteenth century, the German university had become the model for scholars everywhere, serving as the template for the transformation of American colleges into modern universities. By the middle of the twentieth century, Oxford and Cambridge had replaced Berlin and Freiburg as the premier centers of humanistic learning. When I was a young student at Harvard in the fifties, a chance to spend a year or two at Oxbridge was a prize to be cherished. In the later twentieth century, American universities became the gold standard worldwide for higher education, and students flocked to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Berkeley, Madison, Chapel Hill, and New York to enjoy the inspiration and excitement of world class intellectual communities.
Originally, Philosophy formed the core of what students learned at university, to be joined by theology, law, medicine, languages, literature, history, and, later on, by mathematics, economics, sociology, political science, anthropology, physics, chemistry, and biology. Although the roster of disciplines embraced by the university grew steadily longer, it remained well understood for most of this two and a half millennia long tradition that the Humanities stood at the core of higher learning. It is worth recalling that when Newton wrote the Principia, what we call science was still referred to as Natural Philosophy, while the economic treatises of Adam Smith and David Ricardo were classified as a part of Moral Philosophy.
The last third of the twentieth century was the golden age of the American university, and like all golden ages, it has faced the danger of decline. For several decades now, the core Humanities in university education have been under assault, both from without and from within. Emphasis on the immediate vocational rewards of an increasingly expensive education have driven students away from languages and literature, philosophy and history, classical studies and linguistics, and drawn them toward programs, departments, faculties, and schools that held out the promise of immediate employability. The dramatic contrast between the experimental sciences, capable of securing major external funding, and the Humanities, much less able to attract grants and contracts, has resulted in a hollowing out of traditional departments. Doctoral programs have been cancelled, independent departments brusquely conflated, teaching loads increased, and tenured faculty replaced by part time contract instructors without benefits or security of employment. At the same time, university governance has experienced an influx of trustees and administrators from the world of business with very different ways of measuring success and failure in an institution. Nor are these changes confined to the American higher educational scene. Quite to the contrary, they are a world-wide phenomenon, occurring in Europe, in Asia, and in Africa, as well as in North and South America.
Many of these changes have occurred quickly, under pressure of budgetary exigency, without adequate reflection on their implications for the core mission of the modern university. There is a serious need for sustained, thoughtful, fact-based investigation of the changes taking place, their causes, and their justification or lack thereof, as well as for creative proposals for accommodations to external pressures and demands that hold out some hope of preserving into the present century the accumulated wisdom and valuable educational tradition of the past two thousand five hundred years.
For all these reasons, I should like to enter into a discussion with the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at UNC Chapel Hill for the purpose of exploring the possibility that the concerns sketched here might be addressed in a program associated with the Institute. Rather than attempt an outline of such a program, I would instead welcome the opportunity for conversations to see whether this idea resonates with folks at the Institute. I have already had several fruitful conversations with Pete Andrews and David Dill of the Public Policy Department, and would welcome the a chance to continue the conversation at IAH.