A More Human Humanities
The humanities are easy. Or so goes the cant of most Harvard students. And who can argue with them? One can reasonably be worried about failing an organic chemistry exam, but such a feat would be almost commendable on an English essay. Our STEM classes expect a lot more out of our students than our humanities classes do because there are tangible things that any student who completes Stat 110 or Physics 16 must know. The humanities are not inherently easier. In fact, they are far from it; after all, a brilliant philosopher is much rarer than a math genius.
Humanities courses need to challenge their students to know the material thoroughly and to have considered its significance deeply. In other words, they need to be more rigorous.
Harvard has an identity crisis. Allegedly, it is a liberal arts college, but it has totally forgotten what that means. Instead of seeking to provide a humanistic education undergirded by strong curricular requirements, Harvard just wants us to take classes in topics outside of our concentration, and doesn’t particularly care what those are. Harvard provides a liberal arts education for its marketing appeal without the burden of actually believing in the pillars of that education.
The extent of the liberal arts curriculum which remains at Harvard is entirely vestigial, such as the General Education program, distribution requirements, and the language requirement. When a limb exists without its body, it seizes to have any utility. The language requirement is unsure of its own goal, and whatever end it may have it surely does not reach.
It is easy to be great, but hard to be good.
My grandfather, Martin Glassman, passed away last week at the age of 89. He was born in Brooklyn to parents who immigrated from Eastern Europe, and was raised in the Bronx. When he was a child he suffered from a seizure disorder that impaired his intelligence. His parents did not treat him well, so at 17 he enlisted to fight in the Korean War. When he returned he moved to New Haven, Conn. In his career as a postal worker, he was bullied for being Jewish and not intellectually advanced. As a result he was only promoted one time in his whole career. Nothing was given to him in his life, but he never complained.
The paucity of time mandates that we spend it on things that are good in and of themselves. We often hear of the importance of sacrifice. But sacrifice has never meant doing something bad so that a good may later appear; instead, sacrifice can be more accurately defined as doing something which does not appear to be good, but actually is. Though goodness existed from the beginning, it became apparent later.
Such is the case with the study of the humanities. The humanities are the disciplines of the soul. They are immaterial, but not abstract. Philosophy, at its best, is practical and even urgent. We study the humanities because they help us understand what it is to be human. Understanding something fully means also comprehending its “telos.” The true humanist is pushed towards pursuing a more good life because of his studies.
I am envious of those who kept a journal throughout their childhood. They have amazing access to the full range of their past: from the quotidian to their most profound experiences. Those of us who did not keep such detailed writings about our lives are left to whatever happens to be stuck in our head. When I look back on high school and cannot recall the general events of one typical day — as opposed to the extraordinary variety — I feel that I do not know myself as I normally am. Of course, this raises the question: Are our true selves revealed at our most jubilant and despondent or at our most mundane? Memory answers a fundamental need in humans: to know oneself. Memory does not simply guide us in avoiding mistakes and making decisions in the present, but it forms us into complete beings.
Imagine what you would be if you had no memory; if the present had a monopoly on existence. One cannot exist without a past. The emptiness of a life without memory extends to the case of any group, whether it be a family, state, civilization, or the collective society of humanity. At its core, this is why we must study history, to answer “Who are we?”