Tough Love for the Humanities

May 22, 2009

WASHINGTON -- While he described himself as “stunned” to be chosen as this year’s Jefferson Lecturer, Leon Kass was hardly apologetic. The University of Chicago professor is best known for the years he spent as chair of President Bush’s Council on Bioethics, and he was invited to give the lecture last fall by the then-chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Bruce Cole, himself twice appointed by President Bush. But Kass -- whose selection was not made public until March 23, two months into the Obama administration -- dismissed the idea that it might be in any way odd for him to deliver the first Jefferson Lecture in the age of Obama.

“My view of the humanities,” he told Inside Higher Ed, “has nothing to do with whose administration it is.”

The Jefferson Lecture is sponsored by the NEH, which describes it as "the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities." And in his lecture, “’Searching for an Honest Man’: Reflections of an Unlicensed Humanist” -- delivered Thursday night at Washington’s Warner Theatre -- Kass summed up his philosophy by saying that “[t]he search for our humanity, always necessary, yet never more urgent, is best illuminated by the treasured works of the humanities….”

But Kass did not come to Washington to defend the humanities; far from it. In his speech, Kass argued that we only benefit from studying the humanities if we do so “in search of the good, the true, and the beautiful” -- and that most institutions of higher learning today are teaching nearly the opposite.

Kass’s reservations about humanistic studies mirror his well-known reservations about scientific advances, and his lecture drew repeated parallels between the two, describing how his early career and studies led him to his current beliefs about both.

In 1965, having completed an M.D. at the University of Chicago and while working on a Ph.D in biochemistry at Harvard University, Kass -- along with his wife, Amy -- spent a summer doing civil rights work in Mississippi. The experience forced him to drastically rethink his world view: “A man of the left, I had unthinkingly held the Enlightenment view of the close connection between intellectual and moral virtue: education and progress in science and technology would overcome superstition, poverty, and misery, allowing human beings to become… morally superior creatures.”

But “the uneducated, poor black farmers” he met that summer “seemed to display more integrity, decency, and strength of character, and less self-absorption and self-indulgence, than did many of my high-minded Harvard friends who shared my progressive opinions.”

This cognitive dissonance, Kass said, was exacerbated by his readings: Rousseau’s Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. His concerns about education, and about scientific progress in particular, led him, in 1970, to trade his scientific career for one in the humanities; he wanted to study "not the hidden parts of the human being," in the manner of the sciences, but "the manifest activities of the whole" -- for in Kass's view, the great failure of the modern sciences is their refusal to define a human being as anything beyond the precise sum of his physical parts.

In his ensuing career as a humanist -- besides his years on the President’s Council on Bioethics, Kass has been, since 1976, a professor of humanities at the University of Chicago, where he is currently the Addie Clark Harding Professor in the College and the Committee on Social Thought; he is also Hertog Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute -- Kass became known for his misgivings about scientific and technological advances. And while in his speech he referred frequently to those misgivings, his message was about the humanities.

For while the sciences have lost touch with their humanistic origins, Kass said, the humanities have forgotten their relationship “to the ‘divinities’ -- the inquiry into matters metaphysical and ultimately theological.”

Kass argued that it is the job of the humanities to address “questions of ultimate concern: the character and source of the cosmic whole and the place and work of the human being within it.” Unfortunately, the modern “direction of humanistic learning” has “culminat[ed] in a cynical tendency to disparage the great ideas and to deconstruct the great works that we have inherited from ages past….”

This trend, Kass said, is not only antithetical to the proper mission of the humanities, but unfair to college students, most of whom “are in fact looking for a meaningful life or listening for a summons.”

As he told Inside Higher Ed in a telephone interview, “There are people who would love to study English literature -- but they go to the English department, where, obsessed with theory, they’re not teaching the books the way the students want to read them.

"We live in a world in which very few people have anything positive to say; there's a kind of intellectual chaos that surrounds us. The last thing young people need is cynicism and a belief that the truth about these matters is whatever you want it to be. They deserve the best help that the best books can offer them, the best thinkers."

In the conclusion of his lecture, Kass argued for a return to his own “old-fashioned” brand of humanism. It is best to read books, he said, “in a wisdom-seeking spirit”; that is, students and professors both should “search [for] the true, the good, and the beautiful.”

Asked by Inside Higher Ed to expound upon this, he complied: “I'm basically saying look, especially in an age in which science is promising or threatening major alterations in human nature and in which the world is changing beyond our comprehension, it seems crucial for humanists to keep alive the important questions of what is a human being, what is a good life for a human being -- individually and communally -- and make sure that everyone is as thoughtful and concerned about those things as possible.”

To Kass, the humanities need not and should not be locked in the ivory tower away from the everyday world; they are not – as Stanley Fish would have it – an end unto themselves. On the contrary, humanistic learning is our best hope for finding the wisdom we need to deal with "the profound ethical dilemmas of our biotechnological age."

At the beginning of his speech, Kass had offered his own life as an example of "what anyone can learn with and through the humanities." But, of course, Leon Kass is not just anyone -- and thus his closing list of those to whom he owes gratitude included "President Bush for the privilege of leading wonderful colleagues... in exploring and defending what is humanly at stake in our emerging brave new world."

At this point, the audience's respectful quiet (broken with laughter at the appropriate points) became a rather more awkward silence, punctuated only by coughs. As he'd promised, the gist of Kass's lecture did not have much to do with whose administration it is.

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