James Mulholland’s recent Chronicle of Higher Education piece, “It’s Time to Stop Mourning the Humanities,” provides a compelling case for making a different case about the humanities within the larger university and contemporary culture. Chief among his recommendations is developing a non-esoteric vocabulary for and about the humane disciplines so that the humanities may, once again, be made conversant with the larger culture, to which we at Renascentes Musae say, “Yea and Amen.”
Indeed, where the humanities stand today in North America is linked in no small part to the adoption in the late 19th century of the German university model of higher education. Within that model, all disciplines are, well, disciplines, each with their own “scientific” language, and this language has grown ever more esoteric over the years and is now encumbered, especially in the literary disciplines, by the linguistic overlays of over a century of critical fads, ranging from the New Criticism to today’s post-modernism. Humanists use this critical vocabulary, every bit as esoteric as the language of quantum physics, to justify their disciplines within a university system organized around the German principle of Wissenschaften, “sciences.”
In other words, humanists’ practice of talking about what are essentially everyday literary phenomena, for example, in an impenetrable jargon meant only for specialists demonstrates, at least to humanists, that the humanities have arrived: quantum physics with its complicated conceptual framework and equally arcane vocabulary has nothing on the humanities. It is, in fact, difficult to see just what function within the university the humanities any longer have apart from being that field upon which scholars demonstrate their intellectual agility. The artifacts of humanities—the texts and monuments and deeds of the past—frequently serve as the material for just that.
The Wittenberg approach differs from the contemporary model in some basic ways. First, the Wittenberg model doesn’t adopt an instrumental view of the artifacts of the humanities. The Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid, to mention but a few works, are, rather, viewed not as things through which we create an esoteric message, but as things that create their own message. The reader in this model is the one addressed.
And that brings us to another point. The humanities looked at in the Wittenberg way—and you can see this in the Wittenberg approach to Scripture—have an intrinsic value. As bearers of a message, they demand to be heard. And since they demand to be heard, the first interpretive act is that of the text on the reader, not vice versa. In other words, the Aeneid first asks of me how it is that I, like Aeneas, do or do not fulfill my obligation to ancestors and posterity, gods and nation. This line can be repeated and deepened across the range of works that constitute the artifacts of humanistic inquiry.
But it’s just here that the humanities come in for rough weather, because the German-model university in its contemporary incarnation is, or is thought to be, valueless (actually, it’s rather the case that the university is permeated by values—frequently, however, they just don’t happen to be those expressed in the Great Tradition). Which suggests that Mulholland’s idea of finding a new justification for the humanities within the university may be a losing battle. If we let the humanities speak simply and as they are, they bear a message we’re not willing to hear, unless we can first hedge and criticize.
But not in a university or college conceived of in the Wittenberg way. There, where a regard for text and message lies at the heart of the intellectual enterprise, the humanities are not just top-dressing, they are the guts of the educational endeavor, its marrow, each reading of a text a little workshop in letting the text interpret the reader, and not vice versa; each interpretation by the reader of a text an act of charity that allows the text, as speaker, to make its claim upon the reader, as audience, as is only proper in a civilized society.
This in turn emerges from and is part and parcel of the high Lutheran regard for Scripture, which “is not of private interpretation” because it’s a public address by the Most High God to a fallen and dead humanity that He wishes, through His Word, to heal and raise and vivify.
And herein lies the relevance to Lutheran higher education of the humanities, a “cultural” and “university-wide” relevance hardly imaginable in the broader culture and broader university culture of today, but no less significant for that fact—in fact, all the more necessary.