Irritated beyond endurance this morning by one too many Right Wing Death Beasts over at Larvatus Prodeo banging on about how schools of humanities are the dens of the devil and humanities academics the spawn of Satan, I astonished myself by furiously tapping out a spirited, nay passionate, reply in defence of the humanities.
It made me think hard about what an education is. I had a liberal arts education and was obliged in the course of it to learn the basic things (and the basic thinkers) in history, politics, philosophy and literature, including big chunks of social theory that came as part of all of those things. Then there are languages, psychology, fine arts, music, classics -- sometimes in smatterings or informally or on the run. But they are all part of each other and you can't be a halfway decent scholar in the arts without knowing at least a bit about all of them.
Here, however, are a few of the things I know almost nothing about: economics, law, accounting, business, mathematics, physics, chemistry, engineering, computer science. I get the strong feeling that some of the commenters at LP who freak me out the worst have backgrounds in one of those disciplines: some materialist area or other that deals with the concrete and tangible.
Does an education in the 'hard' fields, to the neglect of instruction in abstractions, leave you with a terrible yearning for the ineffable? And if it does, is this why so many of them have become Christians? And why are so many of those Christians Christians of the worst kind -- aggressive, crusading, critical, self-righteous, dogmatic, narrow-minded, punitive and/or bigoted?
Why are they convinced that everyone not for them is against them, that non-Christians are their enemies, that the word 'moral' is about other people's sex lives rather than about the generosity or otherwise with which one behaves towards other human beings in all things? Does being a self-proclaimed practising Christian somehow get you off the hook of having to at least try to love your fellow persons through the exercise of such things as tolerance and generosity, or, failing that, to at least try to be more interested in understanding their behaviour than in judging it?
An education in the liberal arts teaches you not only to analyse things, but to want to analyse them. It gives you an inexhaustible desire for answers to questions that begin with 'why'. But ironically enough, perhaps the most valuable thing it gives you is an essentially religious, or maybe I mean spiritual, habit: the habit of self-examination and a reverence for the examined life, in the belief that the unexamined life is indeed not worth living. On a daily, sometimes hourly basis, one asks oneself endless questions: Was that the right thing to do? And was it a good thing to do? Are they always the same thing? Why did I say X? How did I come to believe Y? Have I done those things I ought not to have done, or left undone those things I ought to have done?
It's ironic to me that these practices and these ways of thinking and talking about them have their source in the religious life, and yet that so many non-religious people live like this automatically, as a result of their alleged brainwashing in the schools of humanities so feared and hated by the religious right. At the same time, and even more ironically, many of the religious right themselves seem incapable of questioning their own behaviour or beliefs: they seem to be projecting their own unexamined selves onto some perceived orthodox Christian template, rather than introjecting the ideals that Christianity teaches.