Added: Trenton Kearney - Date: 28.02.2022 09:56 - Views: 19601 - Clicks: 5051
I f asked to identify important topics for a new journal on national affairs, few of us would think first — if at all — of the humanities and their condition in American life today. The sorry state of elementary and secondary education would surely make the list, as might the need to improve scientific literacy and technological competence, so that, as we are often told, America may remain "competitive" in the globalized economy and high-tech world of tomorrow.
Attention might be invited also to political correctness in college classrooms or campus restrictions on free speech. But the larger and more important educational issue of what college students should be learning and why — and especially in the humanities — is a subject below the radar for nearly everyone.
It was not always thus. Fifty years ago, when Europeans and Americans still distinguished high culture from popular culture, and when classical learning was still highly esteemed in colleges and universities, C. He took Britain's literary aristocracy to task for its dangerous dismissal of scientific and technological progress, which Snow believed offered the solutions to the world's deepest problems.
In a vitriolic response to Snow, the literary critic F. Leavis defended the primacy of the humanities for a civilizing education, insisting that science must not be allowed to operate outside of the moral norms that a first-rate humanistic education alone could provide. The Snow-Leavis debate spread also to this side of the Atlantic, triggering for a time serious and searching discussions regarding the aims of higher education and the importance of the humanities. Such discussions have, alas, largely disappeared not only from public discourse but even within the academy. Most professors in nearly all of our leading universities prefer to leave and be left alone, justifying their self-serving indifference to the goals and requirements of a liberal education by proclaiming for their students the American trumping value of choice.
For themselves, they trumpet the maxim of Chairman Mao: "Let a thousand flowers bloom. This abdication is especially regrettable because it comes precisely at a time in which, thanks largely to the successes of Snow's beloved scientific and technological revolutions, the meaning and future of our humanity cry out for serious and thoughtful attention.
Never in sympathy with these prevailing prejudices, I have devoted most of my career to addressing this challenge. Although formally trained in medicine and biochemistry — fields in which I no longer teach or practice — I have been engaged with liberal education for nearly 40 years, teaching philosophical and literary texts as an untrained amateur, practicing the humanities without a. Perhaps precisely because I am an un d humanist, I have pursued the humanities for an old-fashioned purpose in an old-fashioned way: I have sought wisdom about the meaning of our humanity, largely through teaching and studying the great works of wiser and nobler human beings, who have bequeathed to us their profound s of the human condition.
I offer it not as an apologia pro vita meabut rather in the belief that my own intellectual journey is of more than idiosyncratic interest. Although the path I have followed is surely peculiar, the quest for my humanity is a search for what we all have in common. The point is not Seeking a good honest man I have learned, but rather what I have learned and, therefore, what anyone can learn with and through the humanities — and why it matters.
Everyone has heard the story of Diogenes the Cynic, who went around the sunlit streets of Athens, lantern in hand, looking for an honest man.
This same Diogenes, when he heard Plato being praised for defining man as "an animal, biped and featherless," threw a plucked chicken into the Academy, saying, "Here is Platonic man! To be sure, purporting to seek the answer by means of candlepower affirms Diogenes' badge as cynic. But mocking or not, and perhaps speaking better than he knew, Diogenes gave elegantly simple expression to the humanist quest for self-knowledge: I seek the human being — my human being, your human being, our humanity.
In fact, the embellished version of Diogenes' question comes to the same thing: To seek an honest man is, at once, to seek a human being worthy of the name, an honest-to-goodness exemplar of the idea of humanity, a truthful and truth-speaking embodiment of the animal having the power of articulate speech. Boasting only of having undertaken his search without a grain of cynicism, Seeking a good honest man confess myself an inheritor of Diogenes' quest.
I began my travels not with this question, but rather with what could be said to be its answer. I was reared in a Yiddish-speaking, secular Jewish home, a first-generation American whose parents, of blessed memory — a saintly father and a moralist mother — had immigrated via Canada from the Ukraine and from Poland. God having been left behind, along with the czar and the Russian Revolution, "humanity" was the focus of all that my parents tried to teach. To be mentschlich is to be humanebehaving decently and considerately toward others; but it is also to be humandisplaying in one's own character and conduct the species-specific dignity advertised in our uniquely upright posture.
Mentschlichkeit"humanity," the disposition and practice of both "humaneness" and "human-ness," was thus the quasi-religious teaching of my home, and its content — wholly moral and wholly appealing — went unquestioned: personal integrity and honesty, self-respect and personal responsibility, consideration and respect for every human person equally a mentschcompassion for the less fortunate, and a concern for fairness, justice, and righteousness.
To become and to be a mentsch : that was the conscious and articulated goal toward which all of my early rearing was directed. Two things I did not understand until much later. Second, I did not appreciate that the content of mentschlichkeit was in fact a disputable question, and that there were — and are — large differences of opinion, and even irresolvable tensions, regarding its meaning. The latter error was the first to be corrected. Indeed, my foray into the humanities would begin in earnest only when I discovered that the injunction to "be a mentsch " required serious reflection, both philosophical and ethical, on the meaning of our humanity.
The seeds of such reflection, bearing fruit only years later, were planted at the University of Chicago. There, in the still living remains of the college created by Robert Hutchins, I first encountered philosophical questions beyond the domain of ethics, as well as some of the competing answers to questions about human nature and human good. I was introduced to the idea of learning as an end in itself, fulfilling our human capacity for understanding.
I acquired an educational prejudice in favor of discussing the great questions and reading the great books, though it would take years before I learned why these prejudices were justified. I witnessed up close the dignity of the life of teaching, for we were taught by an exemplary faculty, tenured not for their record of publications but for their devotion to devising and teaching an integrated course of study that could place young ignoramuses on the path of becoming liberally educated men and women.
In the Socratic spirit, they insisted that we examine all our intellectual assumptions and starting points, and they encouraged us to put fundamental philosophical questions even to the natural sciences: What is the relation between matter and form? What makes an organism a unified and living whole? What is the nature of the psyche or soul? These sorts of questions lay dormant as I entered upon a brief career in medicine, in retrospect another important station on the path to the human. Pre-clinical studies left me in awe of the marvel that is the human body, and of the stunning events beneath the surface that sustain our existence and enable our remarkable interactions with the world.
Although I could not then articulate it, I was also mindful of the rare privilege, given solely to physicians, to be admitted to the Seeking a good honest man sanctum of the patient's world. Yet precisely around the subject of our humanity, I found something missing.
The science was indeed powerful, but its self-understanding left much to be desired.
It knew the human parts in ever-finer detail, but it concerned itself little with the human whole. Medicine, then and now, has no concept of the human being, of the peculiar and remarkable concretion of psyche and soma that makes us that most strange and wonderful among the creatures. Psychiatry, then and even more now, is so little chagrined by its failure to say what the psyche or soul is that it denies its existence altogether. The art of healing does not inquire into what health is, or how to get and keep it: The word "health" does not occur in the index of the leading textbooks of medicine.
And, coming down from theory to practice, I found that I loved my patients and their stories more than I loved solving the puzzle of their maladies; where my colleagues found disease fascinating, I was fascinated more by the patients — how they lived, how they struggled with their suffering. Above all, I hated the autopsy room, not out of fear of death, but because the post-mortem exam could never answer my question: What happened to my patient? The clot in his coronary artery, his ruptured bowel, or whatever diseased Seeking a good honest man part that the pathologist displayed as the putative explanation of his death was utterly incommensurable with the awesome massive fact, the extinction of this never-to-be-repeated human being, for whom I had cared and for whom his survivors now grieve.
Despite these inchoate reservations, however, I continued to follow the path of science, indeed to an even more molecular level. I entered the Ph. But my biggest discovery came outside of the laboratory. In summerinterrupting my research, my wife and I went to Mississippi to do civil-rights work. We visited many families in the community, participated in their activities, and helped with voter registration and other efforts to encourage the people to organize themselves in defense of their rights. This deeply moving experience changed my life, but not in any way I would have expected.
On returning to Cambridge, I was nagged by a disparity I could not explain between the uneducated, poor black farmers in Mississippi and many of my privileged, highly educated graduate-student friends at Harvard. Yet in Mississippi I saw people living honorably and with dignity in perilous and meager circumstances, many of them illiterate, but sustained by religion, extended family, and community attachment, and by the pride of honest farming and homemaking. They even seemed to display more integrity, decency, and strength of character, and less self-absorption, vanity, and self-indulgence, than many of my high-minded Harvard friends who shared my progressive opinions.
How could this be? In summermy closest friend had me read Rousseau's explosive Discourse on the Sciences and the Artsfor which my Mississippi and Harvard experiences had prepared me. Rousseau argues that, pace the Enlightenment, progress in the arts and sciences does not lead to greater virtue. Rousseau complains that writers and "idle men of letters" — the equivalent of our public intellectuals, not to say professors — subvert decent opinion and corrupt the citizens: "These vain and futile declaimers go everywhere armed with their deadly paradoxes, undermining the foundations of faith and annihilating virtue.
They smile disdainfully at the old-fashioned words of fatherland and religion, and devote their talents and philosophy to destroying and debasing all that is sacred among men. Rousseau also complains that cultivation of the arts and sciences le to inequality and contempt for the common man: "One no longer asks if a man is upright, but rather if he is talented; nor of a book if it is useful, but if it is well written.
Rewards are showered on the witty, and virtue is left without honors We have physicists, geometers, chemists, astronomers, poets, musicians, painters; we no longer have citizens. And Rousseau complains also that formal education corrupts the young: "I see everywhere immense institutions where young people are brought up at great expense, learning everything except their duties Without knowing how to distinguish error from truth, [your children] will possess the art of making them both unrecognizable to others by specious arguments.
Could Rousseau be right? Is it really true that the natural home of intellectual progress is not the natural home of moral and civic virtue? Is it really true that, as the arts and sciences climb upward, so morals, taste, and citizenship slide downward, and, what's worse, that the rise of the former causes the fall of the latter? If so, all that I had believed about the simple harmony between intellectual and moral progress was called into question.
And if the Enlightenment view was not correct, what should I think instead? For the first time in my life, I acquired some real questions, pressing questions, more challenging than those one can answer in the laboratory.
A crevice had opened in my understanding of mentschlichkeitbetween the humane commitments of compassion and equality and the human aspiration to excellence and upright dignity. Lewis's The Abolition of Man. Eliminated are war, poverty, and disease; Seeking a good honest man, suffering, and guilt; hatred, envy, and grief; but the world thus "perfected" is peopled by creatures of human shape but of stunted humanity.
They consume, fornicate, take "soma," enjoy the "feelies" and "centrifugal bumble-puppy," and operate the machinery that makes it all possible. They do not read, write, think, love, or govern themselves. Precisely because "progress" has eliminated the need for struggle or the call to greatness and adventure, no one aspires to anything higher than bodily health and immediate gratification.
Worst of all, the denizens of the Brave New World are so dehumanized that they have no idea of what they are missing. By expunging from its of life any notion of soul, aspiration, and purpose, and by setting itself against the evidence of our lived experience, modern biology ultimately undermines our self-understanding as creatures of freedom and dignity, as well as our inherited teachings regarding how to live — teachings linked to philosophical anthropologies that science has now seemingly dethroned.
Could we continue to reap the benefits of our new biology and our emerging biotechnologies without eroding our freedom and dignity?
What features of our humanity most needed defending, both in practice and in thought? What solid ideas of human nature and human good could be summoned to the cause? Pursuit of these questions would require a change of direction and a different approach to human affairs.
Without realizing it, I became a humanist.Seeking a good honest man
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Diogenes the Cynic