There is a lot of angst about the coming collapse of the humanities in universities. We are in the midst of a great moral panic as American pathologies regarding their own sordid history with race are in the process of attempting to demolish American history and governance, with offshoots splitting off like a virus to infect other parts of the world (such as Australia, Canada, and Europe). Much of the blame for this is being laid at the feet of humanities departments who, as conservative-types put it, have mass-produced Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries’ intent on sedition and communism and must instead mass-produce Shakespeare-reading capitalists versed in the canon of western civilisation.
I am not interested in this debate. What I am interested in is the future of the humanities. Universities should never have attempted to mass-manufacture humanities graduates in the first place, which makes the conservative case for the humanities in university futile. “Democratising participation” has only served to dilute the quality of work and thought on the humanities being produced in these institutions. This attempt to systematise the teaching of the humanities has created a race to the bottom in the true understanding of what great humanities scholars wrote about. Our society today has more access to Plato’s Republic than ever, but it seems that the more people that have access to it, the more fragmented our collective understanding becomes until nothing is understood except platitudes and anachronistic projections of our attitudes backward on to these thinkers.
It is also ahistorical; the humanities have traditionally been the preserve of bored aristocrats and certain enigmatic individuals from below rising by sheer ingenuity to be recognised among history’s great contributors. They have numbered very few among the multitudes. The humanities were never meant to be the preserve of every person who had an interest in them. Even now, most works produced in academic humanities are either worthless attempts at novel creations, commentaries on the few great works that exist, or outright copies in different forms. There is a reason as to why most of the philosophy and theology Ph.D.’s today do not have the charisma or intellectual capacity that a 15-year-old would have had a hundred years ago.
The unofficial role of the humanities in universities was to fill the gap left behind by the Anglosphere’s self-destruction of its Christian heritage, which meant cutting the roots of customs, language and social technologies (i.e. the very culture) that gave meaning to values that are now being ritually burned. Greek and Latin were phased out of university, the common man or woman’s ability to navigate the moral conundrums of daily life through rituals, myths and common-sense courtesies embedded in mannerisms and rules of civility were destroyed, and the hope was that the teaching of the humanities at university would fill this void.
This has failed, for obvious reasons. Putting young adults through four-year crash courses in superficial study of philosophy was never going to be a remedy. Instead, we created a generation of hollow-headed people who believed they possessed wisdom because of a certificate when in reality they have neither wisdom nor reason in good measure. The question as to how people will receive moral instruction lacking a standardised humanities curriculum is an issue of culture, formerly informed by religion which helped to produce the social technology governing rituals, norms, and civility. We no longer have a real culture in this sense, instead, we inhabit a sort of IKEA anti-culture universe.
If the humanities being taught at university is going to die, then what is the solution?
The humanities (and even the liberal arts in general) can and should be freed from the rigid Fordist university system. It would be served far better by reverting to more traditional forms of learning, teaching, and patronage, perhaps such as the mobile-peripapetic scholar mode. We could facilitate the decoupling, decentralisation, and increased mobility of tuition in the humanities so that the people who genuinely love knowledge can pursue this without going through the hell grind of academia.
Such examples may include Substack, Patreon, or even the creation of a new Uber-style administrative and marketing service for tutors. There are a wealth of tools available for teaching, payment, marketing, and mobility, but they are currently too fragmented. It would only take an enterprising individual to develop an ecosystem of software that acts as a one-stop-shop for tutors and ignites growth in this market. There will be no centralised platform like Facebook or Twitter to censor people; one will own all the means to make a livelihood.
Additionally, this model provides a cancellation-proof function. Tutors are protected by their employers who have specifically sought out such enigmatic individuals to give their patronage. The fear of cancellation will be meaningless; in fact, plebeian mobs coming for “wrongthink” will only serve to increase the credentials of the tutor, who will not fear loss of livelihood and can continue to think, write and teach freely. Credentialism would be destroyed and what becomes valuable is the actual depth and intimacy of knowledge, proximity to great people, and even a scholar’s level of phronesis – i.e. the practical experience in life.
A historical example of the mobile-peripatetic mode is the method of learning in the Islamic world, where there were few formal education systems. A person could travel from Baghdad to Cordoba and wander into the great mosque and sit to learn at the feet of the greatest jurists of the time. This decentralised, open model was one of the key reasons for the rapid spread of Islamic scholarship. The student would earn the right to disseminate this information and to develop into a scholar themselves by joining the isnad of the scholars they learned from and receiving tazkiya (a sort of verification of learning) from them.
Other famous scholars include the likes of Aristotle who received patronage from Philip II of Macedon to teach his son, Alexander the Great. It is this system of fluid learning and patronage that has enabled great scholars to rise and produce the relatively small corpus of works in the humanities that we continue to benefit from today. No one will remember anything a Philosophy Ph.D. has said by tomorrow. People will continue to read Aristotle, Al-Ghazali, and Aquinas for a thousand years.
I am not pessimistic about the humanities, whose decoupling from academia has been a long time in the coming. In fact, I believe that with the right nurturing, they can be revived among those who value the knowledge and wisdom of history.
The humanities are dead, long live the humanities!