Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Humanities Feed the Hunger for Meaning and Value

In my philosophy classes I find many students who just want to talk about life, its ultimate meaning and purpose, and value. Indeed, they want to talk about their value in the universe, and whether or not this life is worth living. Put simply: I find many college students who want to talk philosophy and religion. Because science cannot help them here. And if a student thinks science can derive "ought" from "is" they need to have this myth shattered.

Enter Andrew Delbanco's new book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, reviewed here by Angus Kennedy.

College used to be a place "where the humanities took first place." Delbanco charts "how the incessant demands on the college to take in more and more students and to produce more and more specialised knowledge is not just a tale of increased equity and access and much needed specialisation; it is also a tale of the fragmentation of knowledge and the development of a profound uncertainty about values." To me this includes both ethical and meta-ethical issues.

Sadly, "scientism" has usurped the humanities, and colleges are places "where facts are held as truths and research studies are set up as instruction manuals in how to live." Specialised graduate researchers labor "like ants bringing twigs to the heap. Or, as Delbanco has it, runners in a relay race. The problem – especially for the humanities – is whether this model can place value on the dawdlers and the ruminants rather than just the sprinters and worker ants."

The humanities, according to Delbanco, have not responded well to scientism and, in general, the challenge of the sciences. Which is sad and troubling, since the sciences tell us nothing about meaning and value. "Despite the growing influence of neuroscientific explanations of every aspect of our lives, we do need to remember that science has precisely nothing to tell us about values, about love, about the meaning of a life, of death. It has nothing to do with meaning at all in fact. As Camus puts it in The Myth of Sisyphus, whether the Sun goes around the Earth, or the other way, is a matter of profound irrelevance to the meaning of life. If it did so determine meaning then we would not be free. There is no ought from is."

Delbanco argues for the meaning of "learning" as inclusive of and grounded in, soul-stuff. "Our starting point must be the re-establishment of the authority of the professor as someone with something to say worth hearing. If that means traditional education, even religion – at least in the sense of striving for the apprehension, even a glimpse, of the sacred, of non-ordinary reality – then let it be so. College should be a place where we are offered a chance of going beyond the real and the quotidian, not a place that needs to be dragged any further into the real world. It is a sad fact but one well known to parents all over the American and Western world that faith schools and colleges retain a conviction as to the seriousness of the business of educating the young that is markedly absent from the secular institutions of today."

Our learning institutions must revive the intentional education of ought-issues. Students will respond positively to this. They are deeply interested in matters of meaning and value (witness, e.g., "The Hunger Games"). Here the Humanities must rise to the challenge, since the sciences will be of little or no help.