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The Humanities

Is everything hunky-dory in the Arts? Is what is being taught even worth paying for? Some say yes, and that thirty years of multiculturalism has produced an unprecedented growth in human understanding—rich, complex, and (of course) sophisticated.

In Cultivating Humanity, for example, Martha Nussbaum tells us that the anthropologically informed education now in vogue is an “unparalleled experiment” in which “to a greater degree than all other nations, America has tried to extend the benefits of this education to all citizens, whatever their class, race, sex, ethnicity, or religion.”

Quoting Seneca for an epigraph, invoking Socrates, wrapping herself in the classics, she reserves her greatest enthusiasm for a seminar discovered in upstate New York. At St. Lawrence University young faculty warmly recalled

their month-long visit to Kenya to study African village life. Having shared the daily lives of ordinary men and women, having joined in local debates about nutrition, polygamy, AIDS, and much else, they were now incorporating the experience into their teaching—in courses in art history, philosophy, religion, women’s studies.

Recently she appeared in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement belabouring Larry Summers and bewailing the bean-counters—all those who seek to corporatize the university and cannot see that

The drive for success in the global market has begun to erode time-honoured commitments to a truly ‘liberal education’, meaning an education that (while asking students to major in some subject of their choice) also prepared them, more generally, for citizenship and life.

Thaumaturgy lives!

There is so much that is likeable about Ms Nussbaum, a woman with serious educational concerns, that one wonders how she can be so blind to the unintended effects of her ideals. She makes it sound as if little but ignorance drives the bean-counters, combined with a baseless hostility to Socrates, Seneca, et al. You’d never imagine that the critics actually have a case, or that accountants are just as able as the rest of us to smell something educationally diseased and rotten—something that should be excised.

The fact is that however exciting visits to Kenyan villages may be for young faculty, however enlightening the daily discussion of nutrition, polygamy, and AIDS, however enjoyable it is sharing the daily lives of ordinary men and women below the Sahara, the curricular incorporation of this experience into “art history, philosophy, religion, and women’s studies” has not brought the benign results anticipated. It didn’t lead to better philosophy: it led to “the sort of philosophy we find exciting”. It didn’t result in better art history: it resulted in “art history as fun”.

Did it in fact “prepare students for citizenship and life”? I wonder. It certainly produced some curious academic developments. On the same day that I read Ms Nussbaum’s piece in the TLS I also saw in the Sydney Morning Herald how “the University of Newcastle offers courses in magic and witchcraft as part of its liberal arts program.”

Spare a moment to consider the implications. Such courses will produce qualified witches who will have to practice their craft, will want to attend vocational conferences to discuss the undoubted hazards of their work, will need government grants, conference premises, baby-sitters, unemployment benefits when witchery falls on hard times, psychological counselling for those too old to fly, free broomsticks for the disabled, and so on.

The distinguished British sociologist of religion David Martin wrote recently, after attending a meeting of his profession:

When you have overheard a conference discussion of the drop-out rate among British witches, you have heard it all. When you have seen the faces of German scholars as a respected British sociologist mentions that his wife is a witch, you have seen it all. It seems German academics do not have witches for wives.

Not yet anyway. And by the way shouldn’t there be a Chair of Thaumaturgy by now? I’ll bet there is somewhere.

Posted in Arts and Letters, Notes.

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