Aberdeen, SD. Eric Adler has written a book that should be read by all in higher education. Of course it won’t be, but that is a symptom of the story Adler has to tell in Battle of the Classics: How a Nineteenth-Century Debate Can Save the Humanities Today. This book tells a compelling story in a scholarly and lively manner. The basic story is as follows: the humanities, especially as conceived in ancient Rome and revivified in the Renaissance, provide a unique form of education by shaping young souls into morally serious adults. The humanities came under attack in the late nineteenth century, with various thinkers, Harvard’s Charles Eliot and Charles Francis Adams, Jr. leading the charge, arguing that education is about the acquisition of certain skills and that pedagogy matters far more than the content of education. One can learn the appropriate skills from any number of subjects, many of which have more immediate practical applicability than do the humanities. Those who defended the humanities, says Adler, often did so by conceding the essential argument to the progressive educators, namely that education should teach skills. Humanities advocates were claiming that reading Latin or Homer in the original Greek promoted a mental discipline one could not get from other subjects. When social science began to show otherwise, the humanities’ proverbial goose was cooked.

Adler begins his work by taking aim at what he calls the “new canon,” i.e., skills education. Higher education has been overrun by the cant of “measurable student learning outcomes” (I take perverse joy in noting that the acronym for “student learning outcomes” is “SLO,” pronounced “slow”) and the by now banal insistence on the importance of “critical thinking.” Adler notes that some of today’s most vigorous defenders of the humanities adopt this jargon. Martha Nussbaum, for example, defends the humanities as promoting the Socratic Method. But Nussbaum never suggests “that a high school or college education must introduce students to particular philosophical works because of their unparalleled profundity, their grappling with essential issues in meaningful ways, or even their historic importance to culture and the life of the mind.” Scholars struggle to explain why learning Shakespeare is any better than studying Stephen King. It is now taken for granted that “broad, transferable skills are the desired product of college.” This as opposed to, say, knowing actual stuff.

Defenders of the humanities claim that they teach these skills, such as reading comprehension and–heaven help us–critical thinking, better than other disciplines. But, Adler points out, this gives away the game in that it is implied that the social sciences by which we measure such skills are actually better at defending the humanities than the humanities themselves. “Thus humanists must turn to social scientists to validate their impressions. Humanists, apparently lacking any useful means to judge the worthiness of their subject matter, must play the social scientists’ game.” The humanities are not good because the humanities teachers say so, but because the social scientists say so.

Coincidentally, I read Adler’s book shortly after reading E.D. Hirsch’s latest, How to Educate a Citizen. These two books on education, Adler’s on higher education, Hirsch’s on elementary education, share a common theme: education is not about the acquisition of skills. Rather, education is about the learning of a specific content, the possession of which will naturally lead to the development of certain skills. Granted, Hirsch tends to defend content-knowledge on scientific grounds. Nonetheless, there is harmony between the two works in that they argue that the beginning of being an educated person is to know certain things. In order to “think critically” one must have something about which to think. As Adler puts it, “If higher education should be an effective safeguard of democracy, why should colleges and universities across the nation not require all students to study the worldwide history of democracy, and not to encounter particular texts that most effectively highlight its strengths and weaknesses? Surely a healthy democracy cannot rely on ‘critical thinking and reflection’ alone.” Naturally, we all want students to think critically and to reflect on what they have encountered in the course of their education. In order to do that, however, they must have something to reflect upon. It seems that the best ideas and best writing from the human tradition would be the best things upon which to reflect and think critically.

Adler proceeds to give a brief history of the humanities. Here he reaches back to the Romans who saw education as a means of instilling virtue, of forming students into better humans. An education in literature helps purge the impurities that inevitably exist in us, promoting “benevolence, kindness, even mercy.” This is character formation, which in the modern university has largely been handed over to a radicalized student services department or occurs via a politicized curriculum.

Renaissance humanists “advocated the study of specific classical authors because their writings offered students wisdom and eloquence. They thus laid out a literary curriculum that allowed pupils to engage in moral and stylistic emulation of the masters. By taking in the examples of great men from the past in canonical works of poetry and prose, students could strengthen their souls and improve their characters.” The modern university, however, fell under the sway of what was known as “faculty psychology,” picturing the mind as a muscle that like other muscles needed exercise. That exercise was the true work of education, rather than the experience of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Adler lays some of the blame here on the Scholastics and their emphasis on method. There may be something to this, but at least the Scholastics saw their methodological discipline not as an end itself but as a way of knowing the truth. Still, “from the point of view of faculty psychology all that is required is sustained, extended, and rigorous study, with the content of study being relatively unimportant.” This is akin to contemporary education theory, which Hirsch rightly notes is rampant in our schools of education, which holds that teachers themselves need not know their subject matter. Pedagogy reigns supreme.

By the late nineteenth century, the fulfillment of the scientific revolution, reaching its apogee in Darwinian theory, suggested that the truth about human beings could best be grasped through reductionist mathematics and natural sciences rather than through the study of musty old books. The humanities had done themselves no favors by veering from the Renaissance emphasis on beauty and goodness to rote memorization and emphasis on grammar. In practice, the humanities has ceased being about the true, the good, and the beautiful. Thus, when they came under attack, all that was left was the argument from practicality, an argument the humanities were unlikely to win.

The arguments of Eliot and Adams, Jr. eventually won the day. Not only were the humanities shunted aside for more “practical” curricula but even the notion of required classes was rejected. Today’s general practice of students picking from a smorgasbord of courses under various broad themes dates from late nineteenth-century attacks on traditional curricula. For example, at my institution there are forty-two courses that can fulfill the humanities requirement. Most students can graduate with a college degree having taken no history, no literature, no philosophy. This is the cultural illiteracy that Hirsch has been lamenting for decades, aided and abetted by institutions of “higher” education. This “distribution system” is generally justified, as it is in South Dakota, precisely on the grounds Adler seeks to reject: the goal of the curriculum is not to pass on a body of knowledge to students but rather to teach them “skills.” These “skills” can be taught via virtually any content. As Adler eloquently puts it, the goal of the Renaissance humanities was for student to grapple “with works of profundity and style in order to improve their character. Critical thinking, verbal dexterity, and other skills will naturally follow from such grappling, but they are its byproduct, not its heart. Simply put, humanists either believe that their subjects can help shape students’ souls, or they are not humanists.”

So what now reigns supreme in higher education can trace its lineage to late nineteenth-century squabbles over curriculum. What won the day was a notion that true knowledge is reductive, i.e., the scientific study of parts, rather than unifying, and that pedagogy is more important than what is actually taught.

To Adler’s credit, his book is not merely a lament. He provides reason for hope and a model for how we might refashion humanities curricula for today. Again, central to Adler’s thesis is the notion that arguments in favor the humanities are poorly grounded. On the one hand you have those who reject the humanist notion tout court, the notion that literature and the study of great books can shape the soul in an edifying manner. They see education as simply being about skills and materialist practicality. On the other hand, Adler is frustrated by defenders of the humanities who defend their disciplines on these very grounds, arguing—falsely in Adler’s view—that the humanities are uniquely able to hone skills such as “critical thinking.”

In contrast, Adler presents the thought of the early twentieth-century scholar Irving Babbitt. Babbitt, anticipating Solzhenitsyn, believed there was a “civil war of the cave” in every human soul, a kind of battle between good and evil, truth and falsehood. A central task of education was to shape the architecture of the student’s soul through the study of works of profound imagination, allowing beauty to orient the soul toward the good and true: “Of cardinal importance to Babbitt’s humanism, then, was the analysis of literary and artistic masterworks that would provide for the young the most compelling visions of the good, the true, and the beautiful.”

Babbitt took aim at two groups: scientific naturalists and humanitarians (as opposed to true humanists). The scientific naturalists, thought Babbitt, “following the path of Francis Bacon, eschewed the goal of character development in favor of the false path of gaining power over the natural world.” For the Baconian naturalist, “the purpose of education was training for service and power. To the humanist, by contrast, education’s goals were wisdom and character. This contrast goes some way toward demonstrating the hostility of the scientific democrats—the architects of the modern university in America—to the humanist project.” Humanitarians put too much stock in man’s goodness, thinking he needed no cultivation. Babbitt worried that undisciplined humanitarianism, giving free rein to a naïve project to remake the world, “would unleash horrors on the world.” The humanitarians “[i]mplicity vouching for an altruistic human nature… neglected the inner-focused work of soul-crafting, presuming that the young would naturally use the skills they had acquired in their schooling in beneficent service to society.”

Babbitt further critiqued the increasingly specialized humanities, with an emphasis on doctoral degrees and progressively narrowing scholarship. Scholars “successfully removed their subjects from the lives of normal educated people.” The humanities were becoming insular, populated by specialists who talked amongst themselves and distrusted anything smacking of popular work. Thus the humanities themselves were as much to blame for the disenchanting of the curriculum as the scientific naturalists.

Babbitt, on the other hand, made a positive case for the humanities, one that emerged from the humanities themselves rather than from social science. Babbitt believed “the humanities were essential to the properly educated person because profound works of art, philosophy, religion, and literature at their best encapsulate the wisdom of the past, which can compel the young to determine a sound philosophy of life.” This was not to be a passive acceptance of received wisdom but an active dialogue that might call into question certain ancient teachings, as Babbitt himself did in rejecting both Stoicism and Epicureanism. This should seem obvious to anyone with the least familiarity with the Great Tradition. That tradition is far from monolithic. Thus a sound education in that tradition allows for a dialogue, not a monologue, between various thinkers, various time periods, and various geographies. Here, Adler contends, is one of Babbitt’s great contributions: Babbitt believed that a sound humanities curriculum must move beyond the traditional Western sources and find truth wherever it may arise. For Babbitt this meant a profound appreciation of wisdom from the East. In our day it would include Africa and the “Global South.”

Adler, then, concludes with curricular suggestions, a curriculum that should not be determined by “either a faculty member’s research agenda or a student’s whims.” Developing this course of study will require distinctions. Which literature, for example, is the “best”? Who provides better insight into the battle between good and evil, Dante or J.K. Rowling? Which novel offers a more profound—or even sufficiently profound—analysis of human love, Pride and Prejudice or Fifty Shades of Grey? In addition, in contrast to the past, we need to be open to greatness from all cultures, not just Western culture. If I may draw upon a great work of art—Pixar’s Ratatouille—not everyone can be great, but greatness can come from anywhere.

This educational vision is essential for the health of our people. College education, while far more widespread than in the time of Charles Elliot or Irving Babbitt, is still something of an elite phenomenon. Roughly a third of Americans have a college degree. In general, it is from this population that we will choose our civic, economic, educational, and religious leaders. We cannot educate these students as if all they need are “marketable skills” for the “twenty-first-century workplace,” although it would be nice if they had such skills. Adler maintains, quoting Norman Foerster, “The utilitarian specialists who control most of our state universities are not content that the common man should be a worker: he should be nothing else, he should be kept a mere worker. They will not recognize and develop his humanity.” Do we wish to produce a “leadership class” that is nothing more than Plato’s stingless drones? Is this the low estimation of our young people? “By contrast,” concludes Adler, “a salutary humanities curriculum should feature a diversity of human traditions precisely because it must force all students to look beyond the particular toward what we as human beings have in common” (emphasis in the original).

Here and there I could quibble with some of Adler’s arguments. For example, must we make such a neat distinction between “shaping souls” and “acquisition of skills”? While the former is the more important function, it is still possible that the humanities do actually perform each function well. Indeed, as shown in Hirsch’s more social scientific approach, I think it is demonstrable that a literary education, broadly defined, is essential to creating a literate, thinking citizenry. I doubt Adler disagrees with me, but I think it worth noting that we can make both arguments at the same time. Also, while I fully endorse Adler’s more multicultural approach to great texts, we shouldn’t expect that great texts are neatly and evenly distributed across various cultures or civilizations. The broader canon still might lean in a Western direction. The goal is thoughtful works, not equitable cultural representation. Finally, it is worth asking whether an education in what in Christian thought are called the transcendentals, i.e., the true, the good, the beautiful, can occur without explicit recognition of the transcendent.

That said, I believe Adler has made an essential contribution to our literature on education. If Adler’s educational vision found a home in even a smattering of institutions, we’d benefit greatly. One sees this, of course, on the K-12 level with the rise of classical schools and classical homeschooling. There is a hunger for education of the soul that, with small number of exceptions, higher education has utterly failed to address. Eric Adler has written an erudite manifesto for reform. Let the work begin.

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  1. Very interesting discussion. Too bad the concept of discernment and evaluation of the purpose(s) for education K-12 and beyond is anathema to political correctness and will result in a visit from one of the minions responsible to correctness in thought and action increasingly omnipresent at all levels. In a way, vocationalism at the college level is a safe place to be these days compared to the humanities where questions are asked and answered through exploration and discussion. Vocationalism is safe to advocate particularly in terms of ensuring that historically underrepresented groups are represented and successful. None dare call it “quotas” but that is the mantra for the present time, even I suppose in South Dakota.
    Back to the points hand, I read FPR because of articles like this one. The question to be answered has to do with how did we get to the point where the reading of certain authors/philosophers is adjudged to be a clear cut case of whatever the current mantra finds offensive enough to complain about, and will cause the teacher to exercise a kind of prior restraint, even though it diminishes the intellectual honesty of a course? Have we come to avoid the use of he words quota and censorship by obfuscation when a rose is a rose is a rose?

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