Virtually everyone agrees that the humanities should reclaim their central position in our colleges and universities. But more is needed than laments (including my own) about the poor condition of English, history, philosophy and the other humanities disciplines.
So, based on extensive discussions with scholars and teachers, numerous visits to campuses and detailed reviews of humanities programs throughout the country, I want to offer several recommendations for restoring the integrity and vitality of the humanities in American higher education.
First, we scholars and teachers of the humanities should stop attributing our difficulties to the vagaries of the economy, student career fixation, the wave of interest in science and technology, popular culture and other convenient villains. Most of our complaints are as unpersuasive as they are sour. Moreover, they prevent us from acting on the recognition that we have the power to make our work more productive and more widely appreciated.
Second, we need to defend the humanities against the pernicious effects of economic determinism, logical positivism, structuralism, psychologism and other intellectual movements that reduce the character and richness of human experience.
Arguably, all these movements have made some contribution to our understanding of the world. But that contribution has been narrow, and it has tended to challenge our confidence in ideas essential to the humanities: reason, human nature, moral excellence, the promise of freedom, principles of honor and justice, and the search for meaning and salvation. If these ideas are anachronistic or unsophisticated, then so is our civilization and the humanities disciplines that help sustain it. We should insist that traditional inquiry in the humanities is indispensable for serious higher education --and for the understanding and defense of the best of our civilization.
Third, once we ourselves have affirmed the broad concerns of the humanities, we need to raise the crucial questions of the humanities with our students: What is noble? What is base? Why do civilizations flourish? Why do they fail? What is the difference between knowledge and opinion? What is the good life? What is the difference between right and power?
These questions are not simply issues for intellectuals or diversions for idle people. As a result of attempts to answer these questions, civilizations have emerged, nations have developed, wars have been fought and peoples have lived contentedly or miserably.
Moreover, these questions have never been answered adequately through mere personal cleverness. The best (and some of the worst but most persuasive) answers to the crucial questions, questions young men and women still ask, are to be found in the humanities. We still have the best books. If we want our students to answer these questions thoughtfully, we need to make sure that they attend to those books carefully.
Fourth, it is obvious that we cannot ask our students to take time with these questions if we cannot agree on the questions ourselves.
Since I became chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, I have talked with hundreds of college and university administrators. Many are willing, even eager, to restore the humanities to a central place in the curriculum; but they cannot proceed because many humanities faculty will not, or cannot, offer direction. These faculty members are reluctant to say some things are more important than other things for students to know. This reluctance is an act of chronic professional suicide, and we need to resist it.
Of course, all of us want to ensure that there are diverse perspectives on campus. All of us want to make room for individual, even idiosyncratic, interests. But all of us should strive to reach some agreement on what every student at a college or university should learn. Otherwise, a college or university becomes not an integrated institution of higher learning but a collection of eccentric enclaves.
Fifth, professional organizations should recognize and humanities departments should reward good teaching. Colleges and universities should make sure that their best teachers spend at least part of their time teaching freshmen and sophomores. After all, we want humanities faculty members to do more than conduct research and prepare students for graduate school. We want them to extend, at the outset, the most attractive invitation to the humanities to the largest number of students.
That invitation can be accepted in more than one way. If some students choose careers in the humanities, that's good. It's also good, however, if most stdents choose other careers but retain some interest in the humanities for the rest of their lives.
The humanities produce scholars and teachers, but the humanities are not just for scholars and teachers. Teachers in the humanities should direct more of their efforts toward the development of what William Arrowsmith has called the "large- minded amateur." He is our most important student, and right now our most neglected one.
Most of us now recognize that the practice of the humanities requires regeneration; but many of us do not yet realize that this cannot come from federal officials with smaller or larger budgets, university administrators or students. It can come only from scholars and teachers of the humanities themselves. The regeneration that is needed can come only from within.