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The Humanities in Public Life

Nearly 25 years ago, William J. Bennett, then chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal (31 December 1982) in which he described the humanities as "shattered." They lay in ruins, he wrote, because relativistic thinking had eroded the consensus on which they were based.

Such a gloomy pronouncement failed, I think, to take into account the difference between the humanities in academia and the humanities in public life. Whatever the state of humanistic learning at the university, the humanities in everyday life are alive and well. They prosper simply because they make life more tolerable by enriching our inner lives.

The term "humanities" is too often bogged down in academic definitions. Historically, it has referred to the study of classical languages and literature. More recently, the humanities have become, in Bennett's words, "philosophy, history, literature and so on." But in reality, much as language is the dress of thought, these curricular subjects are but manifestations of the invisible.

The humanities exist in three dimensions: the affective, the ethical, and the contextual. The business of the humanities in public life is to promote taste and sensibility, to guide the formation of good judgment, and to illuminate life by providing illustration and precedent. The role of the humanities is to delight and challenge us as we reach for our full potential as human beings.

By this standard, the humanities are flourishing. In the best film, television, fiction, and non-fiction, we find appeals to the imagination, appeals to human dignity, appeals to moral indignation, and appeals to the need for perspective, for looking back, for reconsidering the past. The humanities are word-centered, but those words may be written or spoken. They may be read silently or listened to, read aloud or interpreted. Today, those words are generally accompanied by images that demand our attention and that shape or reinforce their meaning.

Fortunately or unfortunately, people do do not clearly and consistently associate the word "humanities" with those moments that add to the enjoyment of life and leisure. They yet are unaware that the experiences they have come to treasure are not essentially technological or scientific but humane. Technology provides the medium, the humanities provide the message.

The challenge, therefore, is not to defend the humanities but to illustrate them, not to bewail their decline but to demonstrate their presence, not to indict their misuse but to propagate their power. The humanities teach us that while there are few absolute certitudes in life, yet there are many certainties. And one of those certainties is this: to promote creativity, taste, tolerance, integrity, insight, and wisdom is a happy task, and one that cannot help but succeed.

Comments (2)

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Konrad Schrader

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on August 8, 2007 11:08 AM.

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