Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The Humanities: a Contemporary Challenge

In his 1988 lecture "The End of Learning"("Leaves of Faith" Vol. 1), Rav Aharon discusses the value of learning the Humanities as a Torah Jew, specifically addressing the common claim that the Sciences are "both safer and more rewarding." It's well worth the read, being still very much relevant today , but the major arguments are:
  •  Quoting Milton, "The end, then, of learning is...possessing our souls of true virtue"
    • Knowlege of the world is "both illuminating and ennobling" and the "apex of that world" is Humanity in general and the Human Spirit in particular. "The study of man as spirit is, however, what the humanities are all about."
  • The Torah Scholar should value the Humanities because "humanistic culture does not merely elucidate language but inculcates it's proper use. Narrow education often entails paucity of expression, and, correspondingly, of thought."
  • The Humanities introduce us "in Arnold's celebrated phrase, to 'the best which has been thought and said in the world'"
  • The study of history helps us fulfill the command "to contemplate the ways of Providence, in fulfillment of the mandate זְכֹר יְמוֹת עוֹלָם בִּינוּ שְׁנוֹת דּוֹר וָדוֹר שְׁאַל אָבִיךָ וְיַגֵּדְךָ זְקֵנֶיךָ וְיֹאמְרוּ לָךְ.
  • They help us to craft a better world: "tikkun of the antechamber proper"

A Contemporary Challenge

Rav Lichtenstein's article refers briefly at the end to some of the practical challenges to implementing this approach. I'd like to focus on one such challenge in particular.

The Humanities in the Post-War Era have undergone a significant re-alignment, resulting in a sizable rift between new and old approaches. D. G. Meyers contrasts these approaches, with a somewhat resentful eye to the latter, with a rather colorful formulation:

“I, again, am a dinosaur in believing in Human Greatness and learning from those who are greater than we. It’s certainly what informed my teaching. I was stupid enough, or behind-hand enough, to believe that the writers I taught had something to say to us. Which is why we should study them. Not to expose the sins of racism and colonialism, but cause they’re wiser and, my God, smarter than we are.”

On the one hand, we have the approach of the old guard, whose goal is to learn from the Great Thinkers of the past. On the other hand, there is the newer school, which believes that Humanity’s next great challenge is to conquer racism and bigotry, and seeks to achieve this goal by pointing out their lasting influence on our culture. So there's a clear different of focus between the two schools.

Rav Aharon's approach falls solidly into the realm of the Old Guard. As such, the contemporary student of the Humanities has a considerable challenge ahead of him, if he hopes to implement this approach. He will find himself going against the grain of most of his teachers, who belong to the New School. Even if their methodologies are similar, these two groups have very different opinions as to what sort of research questions are considered interesting and what models are used in answering those questions. How well can one expect to do on a paper whose questions, as well as answers, clash with the Professor's whole Academic approach?

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