Ross Douthat
Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times

I’m What’s Wrong With the Humanities

In the responses to a recent death-of-the-humanities dirge, a long reported piece by Nathan Heller for The New Yorker on the decline of the English major, you could see an illustration of its thesis: The story’s most depressing anecdotes were plucked out and swapped around on social media by people who probably did not even begin to make their way through the lengthy text itself.

One passage in particular appeared and reappeared for days in my Twitter feed. It featured Amanda Claybaugh, Harvard’s dean of undergraduate education and a professor in the English department. She was one of several academics who described, in Heller’s phrase, an “orientation toward the present” among contemporary college students so powerful that they “lost their bearings in the past.”

“The last time I taught ‘The Scarlet Letter,’” she told him, “I discovered that my students were really struggling to understand the sentences as sentences — like, having trouble identifying the subject and the verb … Their capacities are different, and the 19th century is a long time ago.”

Like all the others who managed to make their way through Nathaniel Hawthorne in high school, I read this with a mix of smugness and horror. Then, naturally, I‌‌ scrolled to the next declinist indicator, the next sign of the cultural apocalypse.

What I did not do was click through and read the whole Heller piece (though I have read it now, I swear it!). Even more conspicuously, I definitely did not go pick up a copy of “The Scarlet Letter” or any other 19th-century novel and begin reading it for pleasure.

“The answer to the question, ‘What is wrong?’ is, or should be, ‘I am wrong,’” G.K. Chesterton once wrote. And any response to the question of what’s happened to the humanities has to include the same answer. The Harvard undergraduates who can’t parse a complex sentence from the American Renaissance are part of the problem. But so is the Harvard-educated newspaper columnist and self-styled cultural conservative who regularly unburdens himself of deep thoughts on pop TV but hasn’t read a complete 19th‌-century novel for his own private enjoyment in — well, let’s just say it’s been a while.

Note the caveats there: “complete” and “private enjoyment.” I have read pages of Victorian novels fairly recently, usually going back to familiar territory for the sake of some idea I’m kicking around, and I’ve begun entire books, with the best intentions every time. When our family was listening to the musical “Les Misérables” on repeat, I read the first few hundred pages of the Victor Hugo novel, getting far enough to plan out an essay contrasting the insane confidence of his authorial voice with the diffident style in contemporary fiction — an essay, however, that required finishing Hugo’s book, which I did not. As for my recent assaults on somewhat shorter 19th-century tomes, the less said the better.

I flatter myself that I can mostly follow the sentence structure in these books, but in every other way I am the reader described by Claybaugh, too attached to the distracting present to enter fully the complex language of the past.

And I resemble other characters in the Heller piece as well. The academic who describes how he’s traded novel reading for website browsing? Me. The peers that academic describes who “think of themselves as cultured” but “cannot! Stop! Themselves!” from busting out the iPhone, even at a live performance? Me again. The celebrity academic par excellence, Harvard’s Stephen Greenblatt, awkwardly reconciling himself to his own discipline’s irrelevance by talking up the literary aspects of long-form television? Not me; surely, I’m not such a cliché — except for the essay I just wrote about “Yellowstone” and the one before that about “Fleishman Is in Trouble” and before that … (sighs with self-loathing, collapses into a chair muttering about the “Dickensian element” in “The Wire”).

But let’s shift from self-flagellation to prescription. Because there’s still the second caveat to mention: I’m not reading 19th-century novels to myself, but I have read them to others recently. Specifically, I’ve read them aloud to my older children, first “Pride and Prejudice” and now (in a slightly more intense experience) “Jane Eyre.”

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be an argument about how pro-natalism will save the humanities. (Though, ahem, English departments do depend on a stable or growing college-age population.) Rather, it’s about why it’s paradoxically easier to read something dense to kids, who may not fully understand it, than it is to read the same book to yourself — because reading to children enforces a radical separation from other forms of distraction and entertainment in a way that’s hard for any purely personal discipline to match.

The essence of the humanities’ failure, over the last generation but especially in the internet era, ‌‌is a refusal to accept that a similar kind of separation is necessary for what the guardians of the liberal arts are trying to preserve.

The quest, understandably enough, has always been to sustain relevance and connection — to politics, to professional life, to whatever trends appear at the cutting edge of fashion, to the idea of progress. But that quest can end only in self-destruction when the thing to which you’re trying so desperately to bind yourself (the culture and spirit of the smartphone-era internet, especially) is actually devouring all the habits of mind that are required for your own discipline’s survival. You simply cannot sustain a serious humanism as an integral part of a digitalized culture; you have to separate, at least until we figure out a way to be digital that isn’t just the way of the addict or the surfer skimming and never going deep.

“The humanities sealed their own fate,” the Temple University professor Jacob Shell tweeted in response to the Heller article, “when they refused to adjust to playing the needed role of intellectual ‘rightist’ critique of soc science, technocracy.” As a rightist myself, I’m inclined to see this take and raise it and suggest that if you care about transmission of the humanities through the digital age you should be looking to classical Christian academies more than to the Harvard faculty.

But a more modest version of Shell’s argument would be just that the humanities need to be proudly reactionary in some way, to push consciously against the digital order in some fashion, to self-consciously separate and make a virtue of that separation.

This separation need not be as extreme as the kind suggested by a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece, “College Should Be More Like Prison,” whose author, Brooke Allen, discussed the unusual seriousness with which the incarcerated men she teaches approach the literary canon. But at the very least it would involve embracing an identity as the modern multiversity’s internal exiles — refusing any resentment of lavishly funded STEM buildings because that funding is corruption and your own calling is more esoteric and monastic, declining any claim to political relevance because what you’re offering is above and before the practical business of the world.

It would mean banishing every token of the digital age from classrooms and libraries, shutting out the internet, offering your work much more as an initiation into mysteries, a plunge into the very depths. It would mean cultivating a set of skills even less immediately useful to technocratic professional life than reading a dense 19th-century text — memorization and recitation, to your classmates if possible, to an audience of 12-year-olds if necessary.

Would any of this restore the humanities to their former glory? No, not at first. But before restoration comes survival.

The New York Times