By B.D. McClay
Earlier this year, the Academy of Arts & Sciences released a report, called The Heart of the Matter, on the state of the humanities in higher education with suggestions on how to better it. I did not read it.
Why? Mostly, I couldn’t see what it had to do with me. At St. John’s College, after all, we do not study the humanities. You certainly could not call us a “humanities” school, in the same way we are often called a “Great Books” school. St. John’s is a liberal arts college in the purest sense of the word: four of the traditional seven liberal arts are branches of mathematics, and St. John’s expects from its students four years of rigorous mathematical study.
Indeed, a search for “humanities” turns up very little real content on the St. John’s website. Looking through the results, you will find only a handful that are in any way substantive. All of them are dismissive of the “artificial” divide between the humanities and math and science. Even Eva Brann’s beautiful and wholly comprehensive account of St. John’s College, “A College Unique and Universal,” dismisses the humanities with a brief sentence or two.
So at first I avoided The Heart of the Matter. But then I did read it. The word “humanities” has never meant much to me, and I thought the AAS might help me out.
The AAS did not.
Put bluntly, The Heart of the Matter is very bad, both in giving an account of the humanities and in explaining why they should be better funded. But it is bad in an instructive way, particularly if you are a person wondering, right now, where you ought to go to college. If you go to St. John’s College, you are choosing not to study certain things, the humanities among them. You choose, instead, an education in the liberal arts and in the sciences. But I wonder, after reading The Heart of the Matter, if what’s at stake in that choice is clear.
This blog is designed primarily for you, prospective students. I hope you read it; there’s a lot of good stuff here. But here is a post written explicitly for you, and for our incoming freshman, who are just beginning to make the choice to come to St. John’s. Because you ought to know what you’re choosing when you come to St. John’s, and also why you have to choose it.
You might think that there is no difference between saying, “I’m studying the liberal arts” and saying, “I’m studying the humanities and mathematics.” But here’s a question: if you are discussing Dante in seminar, does it matter whether you refer to yourself as studying the humanities or studying the liberal arts? Does it change anything that you do?
To understand what’s being asked in that question, however, first we need to understand the words we’re using. So let’s start here: what are the humanities?
We could turn first to The Heart of the Matter, which is after all as official a statement as anybody is likely to get about what the humanities are and why they matter. And The Heart of the Matter is written by people who deeply love the humanities. While it’s also written by people who do not observe a distinction among “humanities,” “liberal arts,” and “liberal education,” we will continue to preserve the idea that what we do at St. John’s is separate from the kind of academics they discuss, if only because we are a unique institution.
So what does The Heart of the Matter tell us about the humanities? Here’s what we see in the first few pages: the humanities are “disciplines of memory and imagination, telling us where we have been and helping us envision where we are going.” They are necessary for creating “an adaptable and creative workforce,” “experts,” and “future leaders.” The humanities are “an indispensable component of future prosperity.” And so on.
Here’s the overwhelming truth that emerges when you leaf through the AAS report: the humanities cannot be defended, because nobody knows what they are. They are, in the report, little more than a ragtag group of disciplines that are neither math nor science. That’s it. They have no common principle uniting them, no unique common object of investigation unique. Absent defining what the humanities are, The Heart of the Matter tries to prove their usefulness.
It does that in two ways: first, by trying to show that, like the sciences, it produces measurable results that are competitive with theirs. Then, it tries to show that the humanities consists of the acquisition of skills. Hence, “an adaptive and creative workforce.” But of all the quotes cited above, none are specific to the humanities, not even the statement that they are “disciplines of memory and imagination.” Isn’t that description as apt for engineering as it is for the study of Dante?
Here is a dead end. The humanities might be useless. But their uselessness is not their real problem. Their problem is that even those people who love the humanities enough to dedicate their lives to them can’t muster an argument to save them, or even to describe them.
But since we still need to answer our question, one could instead look at what those studying the humanities do. In that case, the answer you will come up with will look something like this: they are the advanced and specialized study of certain branches of knowledge. Those branches of knowledge consist of human self-articulation that does not depend on special skills. In that way they are distinguished from the arts, which require special skills, and the maths and sciences, which are concerned with the world.
While this definition seems functional enough, it presents problems of its own, and now perhaps it becomes clearer why the AAS avoided defining them so clearly. If they are simply human self-articulation without special skills, well, can’t anybody do that? Why would they require formal study at all?
But we’ve answered our initial question, at least: what are the humanities? So let’s set aside the humanities for a moment, and ask instead: what are the liberal arts?
The answer to that question is deceptively easy: the arts necessary for free people. But then, “free” has two meanings: it can mean politically free, where “free men” are distinguished from slaves. Or it can mean personally free, liberated from false ideas of the self and the world. While these two ideas of freedom can’t really be separated, they are also not the same. Achieving one, for instance, does not mean achieving the other.
The medieval men who codified them laid down that there were seven liberal arts, divided into the trivium and quadrivium. The trivium deals in words: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The quadrivium deals in numbers: arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, music. Thus, the two arts necessary for a free person to master are the art of words and the art of numbers. (Jacob Klein, in his essay “On Liberal Education,” discusses this better than I can.)
Words and numbers are difficult to master, as every freshman who reads the Meno knows, or will discover. Indeed, in the Meno, it turns out Meno is incapable of understanding either of them, although his slave boy is a ready student, perhaps because he is ready to be made free.
So we can say that the liberal arts consist in things that are both fundamental and difficult. And general: they do not bestow expertise.
If you view the current war between the humanities and the sciences as one over acquiring skills vs. acquiring knowledge, as the AAS seems to, then the liberal arts have no particular place in the argument. While the St. John’s student will, over time, develop certain attitudes—an experience of the intellectual, an interest in the origin of things, a knack for question-posing over opinion-forming—that student is also required to learn a great deal of material, and not merely for the purpose of conversation.
Nowhere is this more clear, perhaps, than in the math tutorial, where students are generally expected to go up to the board without notes and demonstrate complicated proofs that can be several pages long. The task at hand is to understand the author’s proof and present it, not through rote memorization, but through making it authentically your own. That the two proofs are the same in form is in fact irrelevant to the internal process that the student undergoes. For the student at the board, the proof can longer originate with the original author. It must originate from himself.
The works chosen for the reading list at St. John’s are not randomly chosen, although the list is far from perfect. We understand that they are great in the truest sense, that participation in and engagement with them creates greatness in ourselves. They are also concerned with the creation of free people, each in their own way. So we aren’t interested in prying the ideas out of the books as if they resided there, like diamonds in mine, waiting for us to retrieve them. That approach is reductive in a way that our discussion of these books is not.
Hence the peculiar way in which the liberal arts are taught at St. John’s: an all-required, deeply authoritarian curriculum consisting in foundational and difficult books; where no lectures are given; where the faculty open class with their questions, not their opinions. Or, one could say: a school where the student is asked to be the master and the judge of his own education, and where the curriculum is all-required because all shall be required of him, as well. There can be no departmental distinction when everything is bound up in the eventual creation of a free person, one who has mastered the arts of words and numbers.
Now that we understand both the humanities, and the liberal arts, we can return to our original question. What about that student, discussing Dante in seminar? What is he doing? How does his act change, when we change the words?
For students of the humanities, Dante is interesting in a technical, historical, aesthetic way. They pull from him information about his context, they use his context to get information about him. Through textual criticism and careful study, they help to present the truest version of Dante they can. Then Dante can stand in his proper historical place, with his proper historical meaning.
For students of the liberal arts, Dante means trying to participate in his vision insofar as it’s possible, while keeping certain questions in mind. Reading Dante as a student of the liberal arts requires that you ask: what is he saying to me? What vision of the world has he opened up? How must I change my life?
And so, you see, the humanities are useful. The student of the liberal arts relies on the work done by them. But they are only useful to that student, which is to say, only a liberally educated person will be able understand that the humanities matter, because the liberally educated person will understand that they deal in the preservation and illumination of important things.
What, after all, does it mean to be useful? There are at least two ways of understanding the term. In everyday speech, a useful thing is is a tool with a particular purpose. A hammer is useful for building your house. Physics is useful for designing your hammer. Math is useful for physics. And so on. The end of these things is usually something that measurably improves your life. (That is an end which seems self-evidently useful to us.)
But there is a second way of understanding “useful.” In this second way, when inquiring about use, we really are asking: does this thing lead outside of itself? This definition of “useful” encompasses the first, but also includes the way in which we can understand that objects of beauty (for instance) are useful because they open us up.
To justify the humanities is not the purpose of the liberal arts. But to instill this higher sense of use is one of their purposes. Thus the student of the liberal arts will understand, not only why the humanities matter, but why pure mathematics matters, or why space exploration matters. All of these things are useless, and may never produce a better hammer. But they lead us outside of ourselves into something greater, and that is why we need them.
But that’s also why you, prospective student, shouldn’t study the humanities. Or math. Or science. It’s why you should come to St. John’s, and study the liberal arts.
Back when I, too, was a prospective student, I had a particular double-major in mind: Medieval Studies and Classics. I weighed whether or not to pursue that course of study for a long time, since it came with a clearly defined career trajectory and also, at the particular school to which I applied, a pretty nice scholarship.
In the end, I didn’t go for that scholarship or that degree. There were a few reasons. I loved the math and lab tutorials from my prospective visits and desperately wanted to do them. But I also had a sense that if I went with those majors, I would indeed be studying something I loved. . .but that one day, somebody would ask me why it mattered that I what I did. And I would not be able to tell them.
When you weigh whether or not to attend St. John’s, the biggest choice you make is whether you want a specialty or not. A specialty serves many useful purposes—especially socially, where it gives you an easy answer to who you are and where you are going. But specialties, whether in the humanities or the sciences, can’t justify themselves. They give only a small window onto a small thing. And if you start with that small window, you will find yourself either made smaller by it; or else, one day, unable to breathe.
So don’t specialize. Unless you have a rare talent that demands to be cultivated now or dropped forever—unless you’re a mathematical prodigy or a genius musician or a ballerina—don’t do it. Don’t specialize in the sciences. Don’t specialize in the humanities. Go to St. John’s, where you will learn the things that matter, and then go out and take that knowledge into the world as best you can.
If you are looking at colleges just now, here is what you are being told: that if you say certain incantations, perform certain magic rituals, you will stave away evil. If you major in the right field, go to the most prestigious or the cheapest school, if you have good grades, if you undergo the necessary internships, then you will beat the economy and have a secure job. Your debt will be manageable.
This idea is not true. It may have never been true, but it is certainly not now. There is no spell you can say to keep the wolf away. The wolf will come for you anyway. There is no series of correct steps that will lead you to security or happiness or fame. You can make every step just as you’re told and find yourself nowhere.
So you have to choose. Nobody can make that choice for you. There are no magic arts that can save you. There’s the path of conventional wisdom, which is failing more people every day. There are the liberal arts, which can guarantee you nothing but which will give you everything. Or you can not go to college at all, which is a choice that comes with its own benefits and dangers.
But you have to choose, because you are a little bit of a free person already.
So choose the education made for a free person.
Choose St. John’s.