Home > Uncategorized > A 1970 Humanities and Technology Major Reacts to Russ Douthat’s Column on the Death of Humanities

A 1970 Humanities and Technology Major Reacts to Russ Douthat’s Column on the Death of Humanities

Russ Douthat’s NYTimes column today, “Oh, the Humanities“, did not afford a comment opportunity… so I am using this post to capture my reaction to the column, which I found to be generally thoughtful and— because I agreed with it’s take on the underlying causes for the demise of humanities as a discipline– accurate.

Using a 1946 poem by W.H. Auden as the framework for his analysis of the decline in the number of Humanities majors in almost every college, Douthat concludes that “Apollonians”, that is technocrats, have won out over the “sons of Hermes”, the artists and musicians. Why is this so? Dothan concludes that in addition to adopting ultra-radical positions on political issues, in an effort to make their discipline seem more analytic (i.e. technical), the humanities professors adopted “a pseudoscientific mantle” that seemed to add “rigor and precision” to their work. Here’s the paragraph that captures his thinking:

In an Apollonian culture, eager for “Useful Knowledge” and technical mastery and increasingly indifferent to memory and allergic to tradition, the poet and the novelist and the theologian struggle to find an official justification for their arts. And both the turn toward radical politics and the turn toward high theory are attempts by humanists in the academy to supply that justification — to rebrand the humanities as the seat of social justice and a font of political reform, or to assume a pseudoscientific mantle that lets academics claim to be interrogating literature with the rigor and precision of a lab tech doing dissection.

The column resonated with me as one who majored in “Humanities and Technology”, a B.S. degree my alma mater Drexel Institute of Technology “invented” in the late 1960s in order to become Drexel University. At that time, the Humanities teachers emphasized the power of poetry and the importance of clear writing and consciously rejected any efforts to inject “a pseudoscientific mantle” that added “rigor and precision” to their work. Those of us who gravitated to this new major were drawn to it because we rejected the ideas that underpinned the emerging technocracy and wanted to see a more just and equitable world.

Douthat concludes his column asserting that all will be well and humanities will be restored to the “sons of Hermes” instead of the “children of Apollo”:

(A) hopeful road map to humanism’s recovery might include: First, a return of serious academic interest in the possible (I would say likely) truth of religious claims. Second, a regained sense of history as a repository of wisdom and example rather than just a litany of crimes and wrongthink. Finally, a cultural recoil from the tyranny of the digital and the virtual and the Very Online, today’s version of the technocratic, technological, potentially totalitarian Machine that Jacobs’s Christian humanists opposed.

I, for one, think it will be restored more rapidly if, like my professors in the late 1960s, the humanities professors focus on the beauty of the arts and avoid injecting “a pseudoscientific mantle” that added “rigor and precision” to their work.

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