“What Humanists Do” — the winter issue of Daedalus

“What Humanists Do,” Daedalus (Winter, 2014).
“What Humanists Do,” Daedalus (Winter, 2014).

Like most people, you’ve probably been asking yourself lately, “What is it that humanists do?”

Help — of a sort — is on the way.

The winter issue of Daedalus ($13), the quarterly journal of the American Academy of Arts & Science, focuses on that very question.

Guest editor Denis Donoghue asked a variety of scholars to reflect on “a text . . . that inspired and continues to inspire the work [they] do.” The resulting essays — of wildly different levels of accessibility — consider works from Virgil’s “Aeneid” to Freud’s “Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis.”

Donoghue’s introduction labors over Derrida for a few columns before setting out his own wide-ranging argument about the value of the humanities. “When I was a young teacher of English in Dublin, this question never arose,” he writes. “The merit of it was self-evident. . . . The distinctive character of a liberal education was that it did not lead to any of the professions — law, medicine, engineering, architecture, and such — and was entirely independent of pragmatic need.”

Donoghue knows that phrase won’t show up in any college’s annual funding-raising letter.

“In our time, the only accredited value is that something leads to something else,” he writes. “The humanities are vulnerable because they do not lead to anything: they do not cure a disease or build a bomb.”

His answer to this financial and existential threat is refreshingly principled and impractical: nothing about turning out students who can compete with the Chinese or raise their lifetime incomes. “A liberal education seeks knowledge for its own sake,” he writes. Amid our culture mad with getting and spending, it’s a precious oasis in which young people are encouraged to concentrate on nothing else but the work of art or literature at hand. This is a hard argument to make, and I’ve rubbed the essential subtlety off Donoghue’s essay in this brief summary, but it’s a whole lot more inspiring and provocative than the dispiriting defenses one usually hears from beleaguered presidents at dying liberal arts colleges.

The first contributor, J. Hillis Miller, notes that “such an issue of Daedalus would not be needed if the social utility of what humanists do were not the subject of widespread doubt.” He goes on to reveal that “relatively little of a literary scholar’s time is spent doing the sort of work I think Denis Donoghue has in mind when he asks, ‘What do humanists do?’” A hilarious list of drab academic duties follows. …  Beware, ambitious graduate students!

Many of the pieces in this volume of Daedalus are directed strictly at other professors who can speak the arcane code of academe. But the essay by Scott Russell Sanders called “Hooks Baited with Darkness” is a blend of erudition and elegance that any reader of Henry David Thoreau will savor. Sanders starts by describing how he first read “Walden” as a boy from the back roads of Ohio. “At seventeen, still a believer in souls and heaven, I didn’t know which parts of the book were supposed to be wise and which parts cranky.”

Unlike so many of Thoreau’s readers today, Sanders actually knew “how to hunt, fish, garden, can, fence a pasture, care for livestock, fell trees, fix machines, repair a house, run electrical wiring, and sew on buttons.” And that experience made “Walden” far more than an abstract philosophical book. He wrestled with it, testing Thoreau’s inspirational and practical advice.

Then the essay shifts, and Sanders describes how he responds to “Walden” today, fifty years and many re-readings later. “I have failed to become the unencumbered, self-reliant, perpetually awake person I had envisioned in my youth,” he admits. But he now sees some of the limits of Thoreau’s posturing, too. What interests him more, though, is the wisdom that “Walden” still conveys — about the purpose of life and our relation to the Earth.

Sanders is one of those rare essayists whose own prose doesn’t look pale next to Thoreau’s chiseled sentences. And it takes a writer of great humility and skill to compose a reflection on our most celebrated reflective book. “Hooks Baited with Darkness” sheds light on how we change over time and how the books we love change with us.

If writing pieces like this is what humanists do, I’m all for it.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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