from The Wall Street Journal, The Humanities’ Decline Makes Us Morally Obtuse by Paula Marantz Cohen:
The assumption these days is that people are monolithic—either completely good or completely bad. The best way to repudiate that assumption it to study the humanities, which illuminate human life in all its complexity. How can you think about crime or misconduct in such an unimaginative way if you’ve read great literature: adultery after “Anna Karenina,” bad parenting after “Death of a Salesman,” political extremism and even murder after “Julius Caesar”?
The greatness of these works is that they don’t excuse the conduct in question, but they do help explain it as a function of human frailty and misguided motives, sometimes of the most high-minded sort. They expose the back story that otherwise would be hidden from us so that we can, if not sympathize, at least go some way toward understanding what happened. They humanize what would otherwise look like simple stupidity or evil.
When we read the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights as first written, the disjunction between their call for freedom and equality and their maintenance of a slave-holding society is appalling. These documents imply an ideal of which the founders fell abysmally short. But this need not negate the greatness of their vision or incite us to denounce these men as entirely benighted. Both the ideal and the reality are part of the story that needs to be taught.
The humanities teach understanding, but they also teach humility: that we may be wrong and our enemies may be right, that the past can be criticized without our necessarily feeling superior to it, that people’s professed motives are not the whole story, and that the division of the world into oppressors and victims is a simplistic fairy tale.
We speak about the decline of the humanities without fully recognizing how it has hurt our society. If we want our nation to heal and thrive, we must put the study of literature, history and philosophy back at the center of our curricula and require that students study complex works—not just difficult ones.
College has largely become an over priced trade school. Demonization has been substituted for understanding; virtue signaling has been substituted for humility.