A documentary on prison gangs from a few years ago included an interview with a member of the Aryan Brotherhood about his beliefs, though one could easily guess at them at first sight. It is true that the swastika is an ancient symbol, appearing in a number of cultures, having various meanings. As a tattoo, however, it very rarely functions as a good-luck sign or evidence of Buddhist piety. (Well, not for the last 70 years anyway.)
But this Aryan Brotherhood spokesman wanted to make one thing clear: He was not a racist. He didn’t hate anybody! (Nobody who hadn’t earned his hate, anyway.) He simply believed in white separatism as a form of multicultural identity politics. I paraphrase somewhat, but that was the gist of it, and he seemed genuinely aggrieved that anyone could think otherwise. He was, to his own way of thinking, the victim of a hurtful stereotype. People hear “Aryan Brotherhood” and get all hung up on the first word, completely overlooking the “brotherhood” part.
The interviewer did not press the matter, which seemed wise, even with prison guards around. Arguing semantics in such cases accomplishes very little -- and as Stephen Eric Bronner argues in his new book, The Bigot: Why Prejudice Persists (Yale University Press), the bigot is even more driven by self-pity and the need for self-exculpation than by hatred or fear.
“To elude his real condition,” writes Bronner, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, “to put his prejudices beyond criticism and change, is the purpose behind his presentation of self…. But he is always anxious. The bigot has the nagging intuition that he is not making sense, or, at least, that he cannot convince his critics that he is. And this leaves him prone to violence.”
Reminiscent of earlier studies of “the authoritarian personality” or “the true believer,” Bronner combines psychological and social perspectives on the bigot’s predicament: rage and contempt toward the “other” (those of a different ethnicity, religion, sexuality, etc.) is the response of a rigid yet fragile ego to a world characterized not only by frenetic change but by the demands of the “other” for equality. Bronner is the author of a number of other books I've admired, including Of Critical Theory and Its Theorists (originally published in 1994 and reissued by Routledge in 2002) and Blood in the Sand: Imperial Ambitions, Right-Wing Fantasies, and the Erosion of American Democracy (University Press of Kentucky, 2005), so I was glad to be able to pose a few questions to him about his new book by email. A transcript of the exchange follows.
Q: You've taught a course on bigotry for many years, and your book seems to be closely connected -- for example, the list of books and films you recommend in an appendix seem like something developed over many a syllabus. Was it? Is the book itself taken from your lectures?
A:The Bigot was inspired by the interests of my students and my courses on prejudice. Though it isn’t based on the lectures, I tried to organize it in a rigorous way. As Marx once put the matter; the argument rises “from the abstract to the concrete.”
The book starts with a phenomenological depiction of the bigot that highlights his fear of modernity and the rebellion of the Other against the traditional society in which his identity was affirmed and his material privileges were secured. I then discuss the (unconscious) psychological temptations offered by mythological thinking, conspiracy fetishism and fanaticism that secure his prejudices from criticism. Next I investigate the bigot’s presentation of self in everyday life as a true believer, an elitist, and a chauvinist.
All of these social roles fit into my political analysis of the bigot today who (even as a European neo-fascist or a member of the Tea Party) uses the language of liberty to pursue policies that disadvantage the targets of his hatred. The suggested readings in the appendix help frame the new forms of solidarity and resistance that I try to sketch.
Q: On the one hand there are various forms of bigotry, focused on hostility around race, gender, sexuality, religion, etc. But you stress how they tend to overlap and combine. How important a difference is there between "targeted" prejudice and "superbigotry," so to speak.
A: Prejudice comes in what I call “clusters.” The bigot is usually not simply a racist but an anti-Semite and a sexist (unless he is a Jew or a woman) and generally he has much to say about immigrants, gays, and various ethnicities. But each prejudice identifies the Other with fixed and immutable traits.
Myths, stereotypes, and pre-reflective assumptions serve to justify the bigot’s assertions. Gays are sexually rapacious; Latinos are lazy; and women are hysterical – they are just like that and nothing can change them. But the intensity of the bigot’s prejudice can vary – with fanaticism always a real possibility. His fears and hatreds tend to worsen in worsening economic circumstances, his stereotypes can prove contradictory, and his targets are usually chosen depending upon the context.
Simmering anti-immigrant sentiments exploded in the United States after the financial collapse of 2007-8; Anti-Semites condemned Jews as both capitalists and revolutionaries, super-intelligent yet culturally inferior; cultish yet cosmopolitan; and now Arabs have supplanted Jews as targets for contemporary neo-fascists in Europe. The point ultimately is that bigotry is about the bigot, not the target of his hatred
Q: You've written a lot about the Frankfurt School, whose analyses of authoritarianism in Germany and the U.S. have clearly influenced your thinking. You also draw on Jean-Paul Sartre's writings on anti-Semitism and, in his book on Jean Genet, homophobia. Most of that work was published at least 60 years ago. Is there anything significantly different about more recent manifestations of prejudice that earlier approaches didn't address? Or does continuity prevail?
A: Aside from their extraordinary erudition, what I prize in the Frankfurt School and figures like Sartre or Foucault is their intellectual rigor and their unrelenting critical reflexivity. I developed my framework through blending the insights of idealism, existentialism, Marxism, and the Frankfurt School. Other thinkers came into play for me as well. In general, however, I like to think that I too proceeded in relatively rigorous and critical fashion.
In keeping with poststructuralist fashions, and preoccupations with ever more specific understandings of identity, there has been a tendency to highlight what is unique and about particular forms of prejudice predicated on race, religion, gender, ethnicity, and the like. The Bigot offers a different approach, but then, most writers are prisoners of their traditions — though, insofar as they maintain their critical intellect, they rattle the cages.
Q: Much of the public understands “bigot” or "racist" mainly as insults, so that the most improbable folks get offended at being so labeled. People hold up pictures of Obama as a witchdoctor with a bone through his nose, yet insist that he's the one who's a racist. Sometimes it's just hypocrisy, pure and simple, but could there be more to it than that? How do you understand all of this?
A: Using the language of liberty to justify policies that disadvantage woman, gays, and people of color cynically enables him to fit into a changed cultural and political climate. It is also not merely a matter of the bigot demeaning the target of his prejudice but in presenting himself as the aggrieved party. That purpose is helped by (often unconscious) psychological projection of the bigot’s desires, hatreds, and activities upon the Other.
The persecuted is thereby turned into the oppressor and the oppressor into the persecuted. The bigot’s self-image is mired in such projection. "Birth of a Nation" (1915) -- the classic film directed by D.W. Griffith that celebrates the rise of the KKK -- obsesses over visions of freed black slaves raping white women, even though it was actually white slave owners and their henchmen who were engaged in raping black slave women.
In Europe during the 1920s and 1930s, similarly, anti-Semitic fascists accused Jews of engaging in murder and conspiracy even while their own conspiratorial organizations like the Thule Society in Germany and the Cagoulards in France were, in fact, inciting violence and planning assassinations. Such projection alleviates whatever guilt the bigot might feel and justifies him in performing actions that he merely assumes are being performed by his avowed enemy. Perceiving the threat posed by the Other, and acting accordingly, the bigot thereby becomes the hero of his own drama.
Q: Is there any reason to think prejudice can be "cured" while still at the stage of a delimited and targeted sort of hostility, rather than a full-blown worldview?
A: Fighting the bigot is a labor of Sisyphus. No political or economic reform is secure and no cultural advance is safe from the bigot, who is always fighting on many fronts at once: the anthropological, the psychological, the social, and the political. The bigot appears in one arena only to disappear and then reappear in another.
He remains steadfast in defending the good old days that never were quite so good – especially for the victims of his prejudice. Old wounds continue to fester, old memories continue to haunt the present, and old rumors will be carried into the future. New forms of bigotry will also become evident as new victims currently without a voice make their presence felt.
Prejudice can be tempered (or intensified) through education coupled with policies that further public participation and socioeconomic equality. But it can’t be “cured.” The struggle against bigotry, no less than the struggle for freedom, has no fixed end; it is not identifiable with any institution, movement, or program. Resistance is an ongoing process built upon the guiding vision of a society in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.
Because of my experience as former CEO of the Seagram Corporation, young business students and aspiring entrepreneurs often seek my advice on the best way to navigate the complex and daunting world of business. As college students begin to think about selecting their majors, they may be influenced by the many reports coming out this time of year that tell them which majors provide the highest post-college earning potential. Last month, PayScale released its 2013-2014 report, lauding math, science and business courses as the most profitable college majors.
My advice, however, is simple, but well-considered: Get a liberal arts degree. In my experience, a liberal arts degree is the most important factor in forming individuals into interesting and interested people who can determine their own paths through the future.
For all of the decisions young business leaders will be asked to make based on facts and figures, needs and wants, numbers and speculation, all of those choices will require one common skill: how to evaluate raw information, be it from people or a spreadsheet, and make reasoned and critical decisions. The ability to think clearly and critically -- to understand what people mean rather than what they say -- cannot be monetized, and in life should not be undervalued. In all the people who have worked for me over the years the ones who stood out the most were the people who were able to see beyond the facts and figures before them and understand what they mean in a larger context.
Since the financial crisis of 2008, there has been a decline in liberal arts disciplines and a rise is pragmatically oriented majors. Simultaneously, there was a rise of employment by college graduates of 9 percent, as well as a decrease of employment by high school graduates of 9 percent. What this demonstrates, in my mind, is that the work place of the future requires specialized skills that will need not only educated minds, but adaptable ones.
That adaptability is where a liberal arts degree comes in. There is nothing that makes the mind more elastic and expandable than discovering how the world works. Developing and rewarding curiosity will be where innovation finds its future. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, attributed his company’s success in 2011 to being a place where “technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities … yields us the results that makes our heart sing.”
Is that reflected in our current thinking about education as looking at it as a return on investment? Chemistry for the non-scientist classes abound in universities, but why not poetry for business students? As our society becomes increasingly technologically focused and we build better, faster and more remarkable machines, where can technology not replicate human thinking? In being creative, nuanced and understanding of human needs, wants and desires. Think about the things you love most in your life and you will likely see you value them because of how they make you feel, think and understand the world around you.
That does not mean forsaking practical knowledge, or financial security, but in our haste to get everyone technically capable we will lose sight of creating well-rounded individuals who know how to do more than write computer programs.
We must push ourselves as a society to makes math and science education innovative and engaging, and to value teachers and education. In doing so, we will ensure that America continues to innovate and lead and provide more job and economic opportunities for everyone. We must remember, however, that what is seen as cutting-edge practical or technological knowledge at the moment is ever-evolving. What is seen as the most innovative thinking today will likely be seen as passé in ten years. Critical to remaining adaptable to those changes is to have developed a mind that has a life beyond work and to track the changes of human progress, by having learned how much we have changed in the past.
I also believe that business leaders ought to be doing more to encourage students to take a second look at the liberal arts degree. In order to move the conversation beyond rhetoric it is important that students see the merits of having a liberal arts degree, in both the hiring process and in the public statements of today’s business leaders.
In my own life, after studying history at Williams College and McGill University, I spent my entire career in business, and was fortunate to experience success. Essential to my success, however, was the fact that I was engaged in the larger world around me as a curious person who wanted to learn. I did not rely only on business perspectives. In fact, it was a drive to understand and enjoy life -- and be connected to something larger than myself in my love of reading, learning, and in my case, studying and learning about Judaism -- that allows me, at 84, to see my life as fully rounded.
Curiosity and openness to new ways of thinking -- which is developed in learning about the world around you, the ability to critically analyze situations, nurtured every time we encounter a new book, or encountering the abstract, that we deal with every time we encounter art, music or theater -- ensures future success more than any other quality. Learn, read, question, think. In developing the ability to exercise those traits, you will not only be successful in business, but in the business of life.
Edgar M. Bronfman was chief executive officer of the Seagram Company Ltd. and is president of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, which seeks to inspire a renaissance of Jewish life.
The current state and future prospects of the humanities are occasioning considerable anxious comment. Many humanists are sadly resigned to a belief that the humanities have irrevocably ceded pride of place to the social sciences and sciences; and, indeed, the social sciences and sciences generate and command much intellectual energy in the 21st-century university, for understandable reasons.
The usual remedies proposed for this state of affairs have seemed to me to be limited at best and perhaps even misguided. A typical argument for the utility of the humanistic disciplines is that studying them enhances critical thought and powers of expression, and one would certainly agree.
But I wonder whether such an argument will gain much traction with college-age students and especially their parents. The data suggest a clear national trend away from the humanistic disciplines toward those that seem to offer a different kind of promise or outcome: a vocational utility or practical applicability. Under such circumstances, abstract arguments about the enhancement of critical thought – no matter how skillfully they are advanced, no matter how much one might agree with them – are less likely to prevail.
I propose here one different kind of case for the humanities, one that identifies – and celebrates – their specific vocational utility.
Now, many of my fellow humanists, I suspect, will be troubled – even offended – by such an argument: the humanities ought not to be sullied by vulgar assertions about their supposed practicality. But there would be an irony in that response to my argument.
As a historian, I – like all historians – have invariably found it informative, illuminating and useful to consider the historical context and precedents for the issue at hand. And as a student of the Italian Renaissance, I have always found it ironic that, notwithstanding likely present-day resistance to evaluating the humanities in terms of their vocational utility, they enjoyed the considerable prestige they enjoyed during the Italian Renaissance and thereafter precisely because of their perceived practical utility.
Currently, the humanities, relative not only to the current place of the sciences but also to the place of the humanities during the Italian Renaissance, have withdrawn from a prominent role in the public arena, and this, I suspect, is one of the causes of their momentarily precarious state. During the Italian Renaissance, on the other hand, the humanistic disciplines were prestige subjects of study expressly because they enjoyed a relationship to the political and social order -- because those with political authority saw real practical value in encouraging humanistic study and employing those who had undertaken and completed it.
The adherents of the studia humanitatis held posts in the governments of the Italian cities and courts of the 15th and 16th centuries; their skills enabled them to serve their employers effectively as speech and letter writers, historians of the state, diplomats and government magistrates. They wrote elegant prose that was then deployed in diplomatic dispatches and letters and in speeches that they or their employers – the bearers of political authority – delivered effectively and persuasively, in part due to the elegance of the language, in part to the emphasis characteristic of the humanist program on skilled oratorical delivery. If I understand correctly, this is the collective opinion of a succession of distinguished historians of the Italian Renaissance: Paul Oskar Kristeller; Lauro Martines; Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine; James Hankins; and others.
Precisely how were such linguistic and literary skills leveraged as professional assets? In the words of one student of Renaissance humanism, rhetoric “was ... effective in the daily encounters of the tribunal, marketplace, and political forum, not to mention in diplomatic and personal correspondence. Artful communication ... became a[n] ... .instrument for gaining or maintaining power.” Grafton and Jardine have written that the skills
...inculcated had an established practical value in fifteenth-century Italy. The ability to speak extempore on any subject in classical Latin, the ability to compose formal letters to order in the classical idiom... were... valuable assets. Equipped with them the student could serve as an ambassador, or secretary to a government department... In other words, although the programme was strictly literary and non-vocational, it nevertheless opened the way to a number of careers....[T]he independence of liberal arts education from establishment values is an illusion. The individual humanist is defined in terms of his relation to the power structure, and he is praised or blamed, promoted or ignored, to just the extent that he fulfils or fails to fulfil those terms. It is ... a condition of the prestige of humanism in the fifteenth century, as Lauro Martines stresses, that “the humanists ... were ready to serve [the ruling] class.”
“In this setting,” Grafton and Jardine continue, “the rhetoric of humanism represents the power of Latinity and eloquence as actual power – as meshed with civic activity in a close and influential relationship.”
As models for their linguistic practices, the Italian Renaissance humanists turned to familiar and newly recovered classical texts, and the classicizing character of university education in the post-Renaissance European and Europeanized world is directly attributable to the influence of the Renaissance humanists, who advocated strenuously and successfully for the virtues of their particular disciplines. As late as the mid-to-late 19th century, venerable American liberal arts colleges offered a course of study for the A.B. degree that continued to feature classical texts, almost to the exclusion of other subject matter. (The course of study for the A.B. at such institutions also included some more limited course work in “geometry and conic sections,” algebra, plane and spherical trigonometry, mechanics, “general chemistry and the non-metals,” and additional subjects other than classical languages and literatures.)
So persuasive had the Italian humanists been in their advocacy that, centuries later, the course of study in the classic 18th- and 19th-century American liberal arts college continued to reveal the influence of the Italian Renaissance, notwithstanding the challenges one would have faced in arguing compellingly for the continuing utility of such an educational tradition in 18th- and 19th-century America. The Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn wrote that “[t]he classics of the ancient world are everywhere in the literature of the [American] Revolution,” “everywhere illustrative… of thought. They contributed a vivid vocabulary..., a universally respected personification...of political and social beliefs. They heightened the colonists’ sensitivity to ideas and attitudes otherwise derived.” And, indeed, James Madison, A.B., LL.D. Princeton University, 1771, 1787, mastered several ancient languages before “fathering” the American Constitution.
Harvard president and chemist James Bryant Conant could write as late as the 1950s that “[in] Europe west of the Iron Curtain, the literary tradition in education still prevails. An educated man or woman is a person who has acquired a mastery of several tongues and retained a working knowledge of the art and literature of Europe.”
Now, what does one learn from this brief primer on the historical context? First, that advocacy – the kind of advocacy characteristic of the Italian Renaissance humanists, who, according to Kristeller and those who wrote after him, wrested a temporary position of preeminence in their society precisely through the force and effectiveness of their advocacy – is perfectly acceptable, and carries no risk of coarsening the quality of the enterprise: a succession of Italian Renaissance humanists beginning with Petrarch advocated spiritedly for their program, and one could scarcely argue that their intellectual achievement was cheapened as a result of that advocacy.
And second, that such advocacy is especially successful when it legitimately emphasizes vocational utility and professional applicability, when it advances an argument that one’s field of study leads incontrovertibly to coveted careers and has concrete benefits for the state and for the political and social order. Let us be spirited advocates, therefore, and celebrate the utility of the humanities as one of the justifications for studying them.
Could a similar, and similarly effective, case be made today for the humanistic disciplines? I believe so. In what ways could one argue – reasonably, justifiably, and therefore persuasively – that the humanities have direct professional viability, and that one can therefore envision and countenance studying them not only because of the intrinsic intellectual satisfactions of doing so or merely because their study enhances critical thought or powers of expression in some abstract sense, but also because there is true, clear utility to doing so?
It would not be difficult to inventory a considerable number of coveted professions and enterprises where humanistic training is not only professionally valuable, but indispensable. I offer just a few possibilities here, and the list could easily be extended, I should imagine. (For example, Lino Pertile suggested the importance of humanistic training to careers in the growing nonprofit sector.)
And my argument is that, in our advocacy for the humanities, we should not be at all reluctant to make much fuller and more explicit reference to their career utility.
What would a 21st-century inventory of concrete vocational applications of the humanities look like? For example:
A field that embraces what was once termed bioethics and related areas. When one addresses and attempts to resolve such pressing public-policy issues as stem-cell research, abortion, the availability of health care, female genital mutilation, AIDS, epidemics and pandemics, and many others, a satisfactory resolution of the problems encountered will depend not solely on scientific and medical expertise, but also a command of the time-honored questions of the ancient discipline of philosophy: notions of justice (for example, determining how to distribute justly limited resource like health care); morality; and ethics. These are urgent matters that require a humanist’s expertise and the philosophers’ millennia of experience in analyzing such vexing issues. The career possibilities in international health organizations, government agencies, non-government organizations, and think tanks seem promising. The indispensability of the humanities to the successful practice of this field is such that it is now often termed the medical humanities.
Architecture and urban planning. The architect and urban planner creates the built environment (an urgent and practical, enterprise, in that human beings require spaces in which to live and work), and in doing so, he or she functions at the nexus of the political-economic, the social, and the aesthetic; the architect and urban planner is equal parts humanist (who deploys aesthetic sensibilities in the design work) and sensitive reader of the practical social, political, and economic contexts within which he or she necessarily operates. Enlightened city planning offices welcome colleagues with such sensibilities.
Foreign service and diplomacy. Never before has there been a more urgent need for skilled readers of cultural difference. A sensitive humanistic understanding of other cultures, acquired above all through the rigorous study of foreign languages (and literatures), will be indispensable in coming to terms with such developments as the encounter of Islam and the European and Europeanized worlds. The repercussions for so practical a consideration as American national security are obvious, and one can imagine many outlets for such skills in government service.
Various modes of public discourse (or “writing in action,” as my former Tulane colleague Molly Rothenberg has termed it). By this I mean the effective use of language in the public arena, such as journalism (both print and broadcast, and, increasingly, digital) or television and motion-picture screenwriting. But it could also be extended to embrace advertising (increasingly web-based, which entails yet another humanistic skill, the aesthetic sense required in the visual and aural material that now invariably complements text); web-page design (which, once more, will entail a fusion of the visual, aural, and textual); and related enterprises. The humanist’s command of the aesthetic complexities of text and language, visual image, and aural material, and their simultaneous deployment will be indispensable. Indeed, the digital technologies of the 20th and 21st centuries are so powerful, and the full reach of the transition currently under way so difficult to apprehend, that one can only speculate as to what shape human communication will take when the shift to a new paradigm is more or less complete. (Indeed, humanistic sensibilities may prove to have a salutary, tempering influence on the effects of digital technologies.) The skillful fusion of still and moving images, aural material, and text will determine the effectiveness of MOOCs, which will depend as much on humanistic skills as scientific and technical.
Rhetoric and oratory. This element is related to the previous one. The electronic information technologies that emerged beginning with the invention of the telegraph in the 19th century have a characteristic that makes them unlike manuscript copying and print: they “dematerialize” information and make it possible for it to be disseminated with lightning speed across vast distances. And the invention of radio, film, and television added the elements of the aural and moving visual to those that had characterized the medium of print (and manuscript copying before it): written text and still image. These newer technologies more closely replicate “live” human experience, and much more closely than print, which freezes discourse, and alters its character. As a technology, print (and the media associated with it) have been giving way to electronic technologies, with their capacity for the full integration of written and spoken language, still and moving image, and sound (music and other aural material), and for the dematerialization and dissemination of such information. The implication for colleges and universities is as follows: we have invested admirably in initiatives designed to train our students to write well and read texts critically and perceptively. But given the power of the new technologies, there is a case to be made for a return to greater instruction in rhetoric and oratory, to an equal command of the spoken word, which can be captured on audio- or videotape or broadcast over radio, television, and the computer (via Skype), in a guise that print has never demanded. The development of electronic communication technologies that permit us to communicate extemporaneously over vast distances in a conversational tone and manner, suggests that we might well retool our educational system to feature once again the time-honored humanistic practice of effective oratory and refine our students’ facility in the spoken word.
One need only consider the example of Barack Obama’s skilled oratory (or Franklin Roosevelt’s, or Ronald Reagan’s, or John Kennedy’s) to appreciate the importance to the political order of a venerable humanistic skill like oratory; these are political figures who postdate the development of electronic technologies, notably. Columnist George F. Will has observed that the American presidency is “an office whose constitutional powers are weak but whose rhetorical potential is great.”
By no means do the new electronic information technologies obviate the need for continuing skill in other, more traditional and familiar humanistic modes of communication – the kind of careful, comprehensive, subtle argument that written text affords – and the close, sensitive reading and command of existing texts that inform the authorship of new texts. Henry Riecken suggested that “[t]he text of the Federalist Papers was put into machine-readable form in order to carry out an analysis that resolved questions of disputed authority of some of the papers; but the new format did not replace the bound volumes for readers who want to absorb the thoughts and reflect on the aspirations of this stately document.”
Art conservation, and its relationship to the political economy. Nations with an exceptional legacy of monuments in the visual arts (Italy being an well-known example) face a particular challenge with respect to maintaining the condition of that legacy. And in Italy’s case, the relationship of the condition of that legacy to the economy is obvious: given the central place of tourism in the Italian economy, it is vital that the nation’s artistic patrimony be satisfactorily conserved. Sensitive art conservation is at the intersection of the humanistic (the aesthetic), the scientific and technological (an understanding of the nature of surfactants and the effects of environmental conditions), and the political-economic (the need to balance the claims of conserving the artistic patrimony acceptably against other claims on public resources).
What is interesting about this list is how closely its elements are aligned with the Italian Renaissance humanist’s earlier construction of the studia humanitatis. The kind of ethical reasoning demanded in successful practice of the medical humanities is, in its way, a modern iteration of the Renaissance humanist’s moral philosophy; 21st-century applications of writing, rhetoric, and oratory are, in their way, contemporary versions of the Renaissance humanist’s grammar, poetry, and rhetoric; the understanding of foreign cultures and languages required for effective foreign service in today’s bewilderingly complex and interdependent world is, in its way, the modern expression of the Renaissance humanist’s practice of history. The foundational elements of the core humanistic program have perhaps not changed so very much.
What is different is the explicitness with which the Renaissance humanists advocated – persuasively, compellingly, successfully – for the professional utility of their disciplines, which permitted them to secure a place of considerable prestige and authority in their world. There is warrant for their 21st-century successors’ advancing a similar argument: that one undertake the study and practice of the humanistic disciplines not only within the confines of the academic world (as intrinsically worthwhile, in a fundamental intellectual sense) but outside them as well (as critical to the successful execution of one’s expressly professional and vocational responsibilities).
Specifically, I propose that we self-consciously reframe the presentation and delivery of the humanistic offerings of the modern-day college and university to make much more explicit reference to their potential applicability: that we foreground this kind of argument for their virtues. Some of what is now being done within the university is being done absentmindedly, so to speak, without a sufficiently self-conscious articulation of why we do what we do. Were we to reframe our offerings in this way – reposition the humanities and articulate their virtues differently – we might find that the national trend away from them could be halted and perhaps even reversed.
My sense is that many students rather naturally hunger for the humanistic disciplines and are driven to make other curricular choices in part because of concerns about career viability. Were such concerns addressed – legitimately, effectively, persuasively – we might find some such students willing to study what their hearts prompt them to study. In our curriculums, were we to foreground explicit, purposeful reference to the ways in which the humanities are indispensable to the successful practice of some of the esteemed and rewarding professions identified above (rewarding in several senses of that word), we might succeed in alleviating student (and parental) anxiety about the practicality of studying such supposedly “impractical” subjects.
Only by such means, I believe, will the humanities truly be able to re-secure the place they once enjoyed, and still deserve, in the collective cultural imagination and in the great public arena. And by no means should we be hesitant about advancing such an argument, since we have the example of the Italian Renaissance before us: it would be difficult to argue that energetic advocacy on grounds of vocational viability compromised the artistic and intellectual integrity of the achievements of Petrarch and his venerated successors.
Anthony M. Cummings is professor of music and coordinator of Italian studies (and former provost and dean of the faculty) at Lafayette College.