Friday, March 19, 2010

The New Atlantis » Science and the Decline of the Liberal Arts

The scandalous state of the modern university can be attributed to various corruptions that have taken root in the disciplines of the humanities. The university was once the locus of humanistic education in the great books; today, one is more likely to find there indoctrination in multiculturalism, disability studies, queer studies, postcolonial studies, a host of other victimization studies, and the usual insistence on the centrality of the categories of race, gender, and class. The humanities today seem to be waning in presence and power in the modern university in large part because of their solipsistic irrelevance, which has predictably increased students’ uninterest in them.

Although critics of the hijacking of the humanities might be inclined to see their new irrelevance as a cause for celebration, it should be a deep source of concern and the impetus for renewed efforts to insist upon their central place in the liberal arts, rightly understood. However, to reclaim the rightful place of the humanities, it is necessary first to diagnose the origins of their descent. Those origins must be seen on a wide canvas, not merely starting in the liberationist climate of the 1960s, but having a pedigree that goes back centuries rather than decades. The crisis of the humanities in fact began in the early modern period with the argument that a new science was needed to replace the “old science” of the liberal arts, a new science that no longer sought merely to understand the world and its creatures, but to transform them. This impulse gave rise first to a scientific revolution in theory, and eventually a scientific, industrial, and technological revolution in fact. Importantly, it afforded theories of rationalization and standardization in method, while rejecting older claims of tradition and culture, of cult and creed, of myth and story. It has given rise to unprecedented prosperity, opportunity, openness, discovery, and technology — contributing greatly to what Francis Bacon called “the relief of man’s estate.” But at the same time, in displacing the humanities, it has made modern humanity increasingly subject to a kind of ungovernable hubris. Ultimately, modern science aspires to reach beyond the mastery of nature to the mastery of human nature, the last frontier for its dominion. The displacement of the humanities has led inevitably to a Gnostic disdain for the human.

A different conception of knowledge formerly lay at the heart of liberal education. It was pre-modern in origins, mostly religious and cultural, deriving its authority from the faith traditions and cultural practices that one generation sought to pass on to the next. It still exists on many campuses as a palimpsest that a discerning eye can yet read — the Gothic buildings; the titles “professor,” “dean,” and “provost”; the flowing robes donned once or twice a year for ceremonial occasions — these and other holdover presences and practices are fragments of an older tradition all but dead on most college campuses, but reminders, nonetheless, of what had once been the animating spirit of these institutions.

The New Atlantis » Science and the Decline of the Liberal Arts

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