The first distinguished speaker at the recent forum on "Justifying the Humanities" followed a recent trend by asserting that the humanities were invented in the American university of the 1930s as an organizational convenience. The second distinguished speaker explained that in their current "somewhat dated" form the humanities are a product of the Cold War, developed in the 1950s through courses in the Great Books and Western Civilization. By the time the final distinguished speaker began his remarks I feared that we would be told the humanities were invented yesterday in sudden meta-post-Postmodernist fabrication.
First, the good news. It is true that the familiar triadic American curricular structure of liberal education (natural science, social science and the humanities) is relatively recent. Hence, the form of humanistic studies is not chiseled in ancient marble, but has changed and can and should continue to change in response to new circumstances.
The bad news is that recent history is only a small part of the story. The foreshortening perspective on the humanities comes at a price. It’s not just that it overlooks a tradition that reaches back to the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece, Cicero in ancient Rome, Petrarch and Boccaccio in Italy and the amazing scholars of the Renaissance. Nor is it just that we deprive ourselves of the benefits of breakthroughs in contemporary scholarship. It’s that we risk losing sight of what motivated the great era of humanism.
Renaissance humanists, such as Joseph Justus Scaliger, Marsilio Ficino and Lorenzo Valla, applied immense energy and learning to establishing reliable texts of ancient authors, commenting on them, making them accessible through translations, and teaching them in a way that created an understanding of human beings and moral agency not restricted by the dictates of medieval theology. Philosophy, literature, history and the visual arts were transformed by such humanism. Soon universities were transformed as well.
When I asked Paul Grendler, a professor of history emeritus at the University of Toronto and an expert on education in the Renaissance, about this transition, he reminded me that this change was revolutionary. "A group of 15th-century Italian scholars decided that the best way to train men (and a few women) to be learned, eloquent, and morally responsible leaders of society was to introduce them to the great authors and texts of ancient Greece and Rome.… They coined the phrase studia humanitatis (humanistic studies) for this new, revolutionary school curriculum." This transformative sense of purpose accounts, I believe, for the energy and enduring excitement of their work.
At the university level great changes began around 1425 when humanists began teaching in Italian universities such as Bologna, Florence and Padua. They taught rhetoric, poetry and what they sometimes called humanitas, meaning more or less what Cicero had meant by it, "the knowledge of how to live as a cultivated, educated member of society," as Grendler phrase it. In general these humanists connected this goal to the stadium humanitatis – we would say classical studies broadly conceived. That terminology spread from Italy to the British Isles where, for example, the Scotstarvit chair of humanity was established at the University of St. Andrews in 1620. By 1800 literae humaniores were part of examinations at Oxford. The pattern was revised in the mid-19th century into the famous "Greats" program, which later provided the model for "Modern Greats," that is, Oxford’s degree program Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Humanism, it turns out, is not only adaptable to modern circumstances; it can be infectious.
The term "humanities" did not, then, drop out of the sky into the unknowing laps of American academic bureaucrats. Leaders of colleges and universities in the early 20th century consciously and deliberately evoked the tradition of Renaissance humanism in an effort to develop some equivalent amid mass education in the modern world. We may argue about how successful they were, but they saw the challenge.
It's still the challenge today, almost a century later. In responding to it, we can still learn from those Renaissance scholars. If we neglect them, we overlook an important part of the background to contemporary humanistic studies, but we also we risk replicating, validating, and promulgating one of the gravest failings of the humanities as currently practiced – "presentism," that is, an exclusionary focus on the most highly modernized societies of the contemporary world, and the uncritical judging of the past by today’s interests and standards. In so doing one severs contact with what so motivated and energized these great humanist scholars and with the perspective on human life and conduct that they opened up.
If this root of the humanities is severed by ignorance, neglect or hostility, it will not be surprising if humane learning begins to look a little withered, and if students find what they have learned soon wilts and leaves them without the perspective and depth of understanding that a rigorous and wide-ranging education in the humanities should provide.