Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.



Total Pageviews

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


This is now the third installment of a series of posts ostensibly devoted to the defense of the Humanities in higher education, and I have yet to say what I mean by the term "the Humanities," nor have I said why I think it is that they are worth defending. It is time to address both of those foundational questions.

By The Humanities I shall mean an array of disciplines including Philosophy, History, Literature, Classical Studies, and Literature, both in English and in other languages. I shall include as well several disciplines usually assigned to the Deans of Social and Behavioral Sciences in American universities, such as Anthropology and Sociology, at least as they have been pursued in earlier times. I exempt Economics from this discussion, partly because it is doing very nicely and needs no defense from me and partly because in its contemporary incarnation [or should I say deformation], it seems to show so little concern for human beings. I exclude as well Political Science simply because I do not believe it rises to the level of a discipline. Arbitrarily, I shall exclude the non-literary Arts, because they raise a variety of special considerations that it would take me too long to explore. I hope it is clear to readers of this blog that by setting the Arts to one side, I do not in any way mean to denigrate them or question their centrality to the human experience.

What then is the value to us of humanistic learning and study? For some of us, it is a great joy, a constant challenge, a source of deep satisfaction. But although that may be a good reason for we happy few to engage with the Humanities, indeed to commit our lives to them, it is not by itself a good reason to ask that scarce tax dollars [or Euros or Shekels or Renmimbi] be used, in a time of budgetary exigency, to provide us with a living.

Let me here insert several pages from an essay I wrote some years ago, and delivered as a talk at Marist College last year. [I have the strangest feeling that I have already posted this essay on my blog, but I cannot find it in the list of past posts, and I have by now posted so many hundreds, indeed thousands, of pages of material here that I have somewhat lost touch with what has and has not appeared in this venue. Forgive me if I am repeating myself.] One word of explanation: The title of my essay was "What Good is a Liberal Education," but it applies as well to the somewhat more limited subject of the Humanities in higher education. I began by considering three traditional defenses of humanistic education.

The first of the three defenses I shall consider of liberal education is the oldest, and perhaps the most traditional: liberal education as the appropriate education for a gentleman. [Not, please note, for a gentlewoman - that consisted of skill with the needle, a bit of music, and the elements of oeconomics, which is to say the management of a household.] A study of the classics, it was thought, would give men of high estate the proper finish, or patina, that would allow them to move gracefully in polite circles. A command of Greek and Latin, like a well-turned leg and a well-filled codpiece, was an evidence of good blood lines. It was even suggested that a familiarity with ancient tongues and literatures might deepen a young man's understanding of human affairs, although that was, to be sure, more of a tutor's hope than a realistic expectation.

The fundamental presupposition of this conception of liberal education is, of course, that the young gentlemen who are to receive it have inherited their position in society. As gentlemen, not forced to work for a living but supported by the inherited wealth of their extended families, they are free to treat education as an intrinsic rather than an instrumental good. This construal of the intellectual and aesthetic life has exercised a great appeal to many of those who make their lives, and their livings, as scholars, writers, and teachers. Somewhat less obviously, it underlies the familiar disdain exhibited by the liberal arts faculties of modern colleges and universities for the faculties and students of the vocationally oriented branches of higher education - medicine, law, architecture, business, nursing, engineering, hotel administration, and the rest.

The traditional defense of liberal education as the appropriate finishing for a gentleman has a curious American variant, traceable to the exigencies of frontier life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As one can see in such classics of frontier literature as Owen Wister's THE VIRGINIAN, it is the woman who is idealized as the bearer of culture, not the man. In the myths and popular fiction of our recent past, the mother teaches the young boy to read, nags and pleads until her husband brings an upright piano out to the homestead, drags the family to church on Sunday, and maintains minimal standards of polite behavior - table manners, courtesy between the sexes - as a defense against the relentless encroachment of the wilderness. The spinster school teacher is, in this version of frontier life, the connecting link to a valuable cultural heritage, left back East, but still remembered.

The second justification for liberal education is a more recent entrant into the debates about educational philosophy. I have in mind the familiar claim that liberal education is the gateway to integration into American society and economy, the engine of upward mobility in a competitive capitalist marketplace, the stepstool that will enable the smart, the ambitious, the hard-working to begin the climb up the pyramid to its favored upper reaches.

This theme is repeated endlessly in our popular literature, and not without a certain measure of truth. Indeed, my own family history is a perfect exemplification of the story. My great-grandfather arrived at Ellis Island in 1880 as Abram Zarembovich. Forced to change his name to Wolff by an unsympathetic immigration official, he settled on the Lower East Side of New York and raised my grandfather, who without formal education beyond some secondary schooling became a leader of the Socialist Party. His son, my father, seized the chance for a free college education at City College of New York, and continued on to do graduate work in Biology, before beginning his career as a teacher. And here I stand, the fulfillment, odd as it may sound, of my family's aspirations - a college professor who actually writes books! Not many men have the great good fortune to satisfy their parents' deepest hopes while doing something so unworldly as philosophy. It is, I suppose, the way some Catholic priests feel who come from Irish-American backgrounds, except that I don't have to give up sex.

All of this can be summed up, in the slang terms common to American corporate life, by saying that the role of liberal education is to draw a sharp, immediately discernible line between the suits and the shirts - between those employees of large companies who wear suits, are paid salaries by the month, never get their hands dirty, and sit in offices with their names on the doors [along with their professional counterparts, the doctors, lawyers, professors, architects, etc.], and the many more employees who wear shirt sleeves, or the female equivalent, are paid wages by the week, get dirty and sweaty, and work on factory lines, or in office secretarial pools, or in stockrooms, but not in offices with their names on the doors.

We understand these distinctions intuitively and recognize them immediately, even in a university, where local customs dictate a style of dress that might fool outsiders - but never insiders - about class position. After all, when was the last time on a college campus that you mistook a janitor, a groundskeeper, or a secretary for a professor?

There is, finally, the justification for liberal education which I have always associated most immediately with the University of Chicago under the guidance of Robert Maynard Hutchins, but which has been given expression, in one form or another, in Harvard's General Education and Core Curriculum programs, in Columbia's Contemporary Civilization course, in the Great Books curriculum of St. John's College, and in countless other curricula and institutions besides: the conception of liberal education as an initiation into the two millennia long Great Conversation.

When I was a boy, I found in my parents' attic, buried under a mound of ancient science textbooks, a slender volume entitled "Heavenly Discourses," by Charles Erskine Scott Wood. This consisted, as the title perhaps suggests, of a series of imaginary conversations in heaven among famous men and women of the western cultural tradition who could not, under normal historical circumstances, have encountered one another here on earth.

The book made an enormous impression on me - so much so that my very first college paper, written in the Fall of 1950, was an imaginary heavenly discourse, featuring John Stuart Mill, T. S. Eliot, Zarathustra, and Carl Sandburg, on the issues posed by Ortega y Gasset's REVOLT OF THE MASSES. [As you might perhaps guess, Sandburg won.]

The ideal of the Great Conversation is merely an elaborate formalization of Wood's charming conceit. Western Civilization is conceived as a perpetual debate about a number of timeless questions, conducted by the great minds of the Judeo-Christian, Graeco-Roman tradition, with its medieval Arabic variants, through the medium of a small, but continuously growing, library of great works of philosophy, tragedy, poetry, fiction, history, political theory - and, more recently, sociology, anthropology, economics, and anthropology. Homer and the nameless authors of the Old Testament, Sophocles and Euripides, Plato and Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides, Cicero, Caesar, Paul and the Evangelists, Ovid, Sappho, Philo, Tertullian, Aquinas, Maimonides, Averroes, Avicenna, Erasmus, Luther, Chaucer, Calvin, John of Salisbury, Jean Bodin, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Bacon, Montaigne, Descartes, Spinoza, Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert, Locke, Galileo, Newton, Berkeley, Hume, Leibniz, Kant, Rousseau, Hegel, Fichte, Schelling, Herder, Marx, Smith, Bentham, Mill - on and on they come, quibbling, quarreling, drawing distinctions, splitting hairs, proving the existence of God, refuting the proofs for the existence of God, reading one another, referring to one another - a grand faculty seminar, captured for all time in no more than several hundred immortal books.

A liberal education - so this story has it - is a ticket of admission to the Conversation. Most of us are mere auditors, much as I was when, as a boy of ten, I sat on the steps of the staircase leading from my parents' living room and listened to my parents, my uncles and aunts, and the neighbors debating politics, literature, and the bureaucratic insanities of the New York City School System in which they worked. An inspired few actually enter the Conversation, and make to it contributions that will be taken up into the immortal lists of Great Books. But for the rest of us, it is enough that we have been initiated into its rituals and shibboleths. Throughout our lives, that eternal debate will be the intellectual accompaniment of our quotidien lives.


Michael said...

I just wanted to say that I liked this very much.
Oh and I think you posted a video of the lecture you gave at Marist, but not the text of the lecture itself.

J.Vlasits said...

The last two paragraphs brought tears to my eyes. Thank you so much for posting this. I just got accepted into a philosophy phd program and will be beginning a life dedicated to that conversation. Sometimes I find it so hard to explain to other people what it's like to engage in a debate with these texts. Whenever I open up Plato or Aristotle in Greek, I just get this feeling of overwhelming excitement. Thanks again, you're fighting the good fight here.

carrollcycle said...

Ah! Once again transported to the classrooms of Amherst, laughing to myself, nodding, delighted at the marvelous turn of phrase which expresses these deeply felt well. Professor, bravo!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you so much. Now I must try to penetrate your webname disguise!

Mo said...

Interesting article, however, as a Poli-sci Major I admit to being a bit miffed at your assertion that Political Science is not a discipline: that seems highly arbitrary. It was enough of a discipline to figure in the old British PPE degrees, Politics, Philosophy, and Economics.

The fact that one can major in Poli-sci in the majority of universities seems to indicate that it's enough of a discipline to receive that honour.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

My profound apologies. I am afraid I am one of those old fashioned types who thinks that Political Science is either philosophy or sociology or economics. But as you say, who am I to argue with PPE! [By the way, PPE does not stand for "Political Science, Philosophy, and Economics," but for "Politics, Philosophy, and Economics," which is a pretty good definition of what used to be called "Political Economy."] Anyway, I am not in the business of reading people out of the Academy. Just consider it the intemperate maunderings of an old man. :)

wallyverr said...

The canonical order is
"Philosophy, Politics and Economics"
which should presumably please a philosopher. Not that the profusion of PPE alumni in the forefront of both the UK Conservative and Labour parties appears to be leading to a reign of philospher-kings, though.

Mo said...

Apology accepted. :) Political Science overlaps with a great many fields, but we look at things in our own way. I don't think poli-sci can be said to be just any one field (or even just two or three disciplines), although we certainly borrow from many other fields and blend aspects of them into our own unique brew, as it were.

Liam Carroll said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Debbylee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Debbylee said...

Professor Wolff, had a week away since posting my comment from my account 'Carrollcycle' from which you would never discern my true identity! I was class of '80, Deb Turner, memorable perhaps by having to be hospitalized at the start of the year with appendicitis and missing a large amount of classes...catching up with your help and having a memorable lunch with you at the top of the Campus Center one day where we discussed the future of STPEC students. So, the mask is off. So enjoying your blog! - Deb

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Well, Deb, good to hear from you. Considering the fact that you were the only student in the class to get an A+ on the first paper, I am delighted that you enjoyed the class. But then, you had a pretty good collection of teachers: Bill Connolly, Ken Dolbeare, Jane Humphreys, Mort Schoolman, and Steve Resnick,l among others. Hard to beat that line up!!

Debbylee said...

So true about the line up...that is what drew me in and kept me. Nice of you to remind me of my paper....and to remember!