Interrogating Tradition: A Prospectus for Humanist Studies*

*Lecture given at Goddard College, October 30, 2009 launching the Goddard Humanist Studies Initiative.

In 2004 I became chair of the department of Religion and Human Values at Wells College in upstate NY, not far from Ithaca where I now live. I was intrigued by the name of the department: most colleges and universities of any size and distinction have departments of religion, or departments of religious studies, or in some cases, Harvard to name one, programs in the “study of religion,” but a department of religion and human values–how intriguing, how mysterious. What’s going on here I wondered. I asked a colleague how the juxtaposition occurred and she told me that once upon a time the idea had been to organize teaching around the conversation between the ideas and ethical practices that we normally associate with the world’s religious traditions, and those that emanate from the secular realm.

Over time new faculty came and went, the department chair who had proposed the name became a born-again Jungian and absconded, leaving her legacy behind her along with a patchwork of courses that looked very much like any other religious studies program I had known. As I proceeded to rework the curriculum, I kept coming back to the original idea and tried to sort out in my own head what was wrong with it.

The problem was that if you call something “religion and human values” it assumes that there are two independent and perhaps antagonistic streams of thought and action that grow up quite separately from each other, one mired in an interesting but fundamentally mythic or discredited worldview, the other socially responsible, scientific, rational and relevant.

But those of us who think of ourselves as philosophers, historians, social scientists or artists know that it isn’t that simple. Religion isn’t a “knowledge pool” and secularism doesn’t spring like the ever reasonable Athena from the head of all powerful Zeus. The relationship is more complicated and is more evolutionary and erratic than symmetrical.

Having spotted the problem in a curriculum that didn’t live up to its name and probably never could, I was still intrigued by the fact that if we simply dumped the name human values we would lose something of importance. Philosophy as an academic profession cared more about technical philosophy and had spent the last fifty years trying to become a science. Religious studies had bought phenomenology hook, line and sinker and now considered itself primarily a descriptive field, wedged somewhere between literary studies and anthropology. True, our best colleges offered thematic writing seminars and various opportunities to look at topics and issues from cross-disciplinary angles. But where in the college and university curriculum would “human values” get a fair hearing? Where would students learn that at a macro level, they were the beneficiaries of a long struggle for humanistic and secular learning—something the modern university quietly embodied but failed to express.

In 2006, I became a vice president of the Center for Inquiry, tasked with building up its educational offerings. I brought the “Wells conundrum” with me to the job. In fall of the same year I flew to Miami for a meeting with a donor and a dean at the University of Miami to see whether an alliance could be forged between the Center and the University with the specific purpose of creating a program in human values or humanist studies. The dean, who remains a close friend, was direct, skeptical and helpful: He said in so many words that the modern research university is an industrial, money-making entity. It is interested in rankings, faculty development, growth, and visibility. In short, it has to be competitive with institutions that look just like it.

Moreover, he said, how is a program in humanism any different from what the college or university does every day in its scores of departments, research programs, centers and consultations? Isn’t the promotion of reason and science not only among the goals a university aims to achieve but the foundation of a good university’s existence?

I have to say, I was slightly stunned. Stunned because the answer to the question (yes) is actually strongly implied in the premise. The assumption is that the modern university is humanistic, secular, committed to science and reason, or at least to certain values that make its work possible and its product worth paying for. The further assumption is that whether you are studying Romance Linguistics or Creative Writing, biochemistry or technical theater, you are the beneficiary of this implied humanism.

So I said to the dean that nowhere in this industrial competitive model is the working assumption made clear to students. For the students, the supermarket is all about choice and the product is groceries. Increasingly it is the aggregation of disaggregation and the role of the university or college is to provide maps in the form of distribution requirements and maximum variety rather than a learning prospectus. What they are missing is any careful reflection on why education is valuable to begin with, why the products of human culture are worth studying, why we need to think of the past as more than a series of ancient embarrassments that we need to fix, or why the future is not necessarily a smooth sea called scientific progress leading to a better world.

Unfortunately, unless human values, the study of the secular, and an explicit humanism can be brought forward as integral to whatever the overworked phrase liberal education means, the most visible, well programmed, highly ranked university or college in the world will not be doing its job.

I had come a long way from puzzling over the phrase to recognizing that the poor dear Jungian who tried to slot it into the curriculum had been onto something.

But what?

The term human values has been around for awhile. The Princeton University Center for Human Values was founded in 1990,

“through the generosity of Laurance S. Rockefeller ‘32, to foster ongoing inquiry into important ethical issues in private and public life and supports teaching, research, and discussion of ethics and human values throughout the curriculum and across the disciplines at Princeton University.”

Partly this was done, if you examine the history of the Center, to provide the sort of integrating counterweight to the movement of disaggregation I was just describing. The problem, however, is that the Center was conceptualized as a research and “special events” agency, and research centers devolve quickly, even with the best of intentions into restaurant menus: lectures on fascinating topics that soon begin to mirror the private interests of big-name speakers.

Without saying that this has what has happened at Princeton, I invite you inspect the most recent lecture schedule posted on the website. What you will find are lectures on “Economic Freedom within the EU,” one on “Bioliberation,” and quite a few called “title to be announced,” strongly implying that the status of the speaker outweighs any systematic effort to link topic to vision.

I am tempted to say Let Princeton be Princeton, but rather like the situation at Wells College, there is a tendency to use the term human values so generously that its key markers—humanism and secularism are hardly mentioned at all.

What Mark Schulman, the president of Goddard, and I began discussing over two years ago now is the possibility of creating a degree program where these markers are front and center-not embedded in a general studies program, not lost among the shelves of the educational Wal-Mart, not used as a counterpoint to religion or a synonym for science or just another way of talking about ethics.

But before that discussion can take place, a little positioning “beyond Princeton” is necessary–on the premise that it’s better to avoid Alice’s situation in that famous dialogue with the Cheshire cat: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?,” Alice asks. “That depends a good deal on where you want to go,” says the Cat. “I don’t much care where,” replies Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” says the Cat. For purposes of what comes out of this dialogue, direction and definition matter because we have some idea of where we would like to end up. Otherwise, as Cicero said, “Stercus accidit.”

In the first place, human values are cultural. They may lead to the writing of books, including ones considered sacred, but they do not emanate from those books.

They are not revealed but developed. The basic principle in the human sciences is that we make culture and live in it and through it. The human values are the ones that we bring with us to this process.

Because we’re in culture “like” a fish is in water, there are key elements of our life that we don’t question, analyze, or think very much about. (The story about not telling a bee it can’t fly is a case in point). We value life, we value the continuation of life—not just our own but the lives of others and the life of the planet and the environment that supports it. And we know that most other values we can name originate in that primary valuation and that the various specialized cultures (agriculture, horticulture, techno-culture) support different parts of our existence in different ways.

But we’re not fish and we’re not bees. Human values are the values that make us human. The question of human values, as we examine the various discrete cultures that touch our lives is whether there is anything that rises above the specialized value-systems that emerge in relation to the demands of each community. If all systems of culture are need-driven, if (as we think) needs differ from culture to culture, and if we are the makers and managers of culture, isn’t the fundamental value competition and everything else piety? An impressive number of thinkers have thought so.

I am not asking that question just to say No (too pious) but to say that that’s the kind of question that would arise in this program. It is the kind of question that arises for a humanist–for someone interested in interrogating and not merely analyzing tradition.

What a humanist studies program will look like will depend on its incorporating core questions about the human past, the human condition in the present, and a vision for the future. That’s not just a cliché way of thinking about a curriculum as an obligatory three-part soul but a way of thinking about its objectives. It describes three dimensions or areas of interrogation:

1) Human achievement. Take this, broadly speaking, as the historical or social-historical dimension. Humanism is not a glorification of the human past and the accomplishments of great people. The Great Man theory of history had its heyday in the 19th century and educational programs are still recovering from the model and the assured conclusions concerning what constitutes greatness. When politicians in Washington or Moscow “invoke” national mythologies or impose patriotic categories on contemporary issues, it’s the archaic-categorical version of history they invoke. Since human values is a critical and question-provoking field, the emphasis for a student is to develop skills in analyzing and interrogating a whole range of artefacts—different expressions of material culture, ideas, ideologies, religious beliefs, political opinions and social experiments. It is multidimensional and layered rather than linear and chronological.

Historical study—which would include everything from archaeology to political studies and the history of ideas—suggests that we value memory: we write things down. We pass things on—everything ranging from nursery rhymes to myths, prejudices, superstition to battle stories and folk wisdom and techniques of war. The cultural world is composed of these memories in various forms—books, poems, art, cemeteries, ruins, myths, rituals. What do we value about the past that makes memory significant? How does the study of human achievement and memory integrate our knowledge or, in some sense, help us to understand the kind of creatures we are and the challenges we confront? Are we capable of reaching a deeper understanding of human achievement than we get in the average lecture on the Crusades, or the nineteenth century novel, or a power-point on the Battle of Marathon? The interrogation of the past, to be straightforward about this, is not the memorization of data but an experimental approach to a shared global history.

2) Human Responsibility. Just as we value the past, we have also valued certain forms of behavior. During our time on this planet, we have obeyed the customs and taboos of the tribe, the rules of priests and kings, and the commandments of various gods, and the ideologies of secular states. If one thing has characterized our behavior in general right up to the present day, it is that we have seldom thought of ourselves as the sources of these norms and regulations, and we have just as often been their victims as their beneficiaries.

It is easy to understand this procession from god-given to legislative as the swell of progress from fear to understanding. And that is certainly a theory that many secular people cherish. But just as we can point to the creation of social networks and the creation of cities as a chapter in the history of human achievement, we also have to point to war, class division, sex and gender inequality, and economic exploitation of whole human populations as failures of secular idealism.

That is to say, while we are ethics-making creatures, we are also often recidivist in the way we approach the question of responsibility. If responsibility is a human value, how can we approach it without a systematic knowledge of various political, theological and philosophical attempts to ask the question that Aristotle subsumes under a discussion of happiness and the good life for the human animal? What would that systematic approach look like? What sorts of questions would we expect a student enrolled in a humanist studies program to be asking, and how would those questions be translated into action, leadership, and the education of others?

Many humanists just now are talking about the Good-without-God craze, but I happen to think that the entire campaign is capital misspent. If there is a real correlation between human good (that is, the good for human beings) and human goodness, the God-question doesn’t arise at all. It should not dominate the interrogation of human responsibility for humanists since the question of “how ought we to behave” cannot be defined antithetically to settled dogma and metaphysics that put human beings in inferior positions. Put a bit more cynically, and epistemologically: how does the humanist know he is good without God?

3) Finally, Human Imagination. Yes, the vision thing. The utopias and dystopias, Star Wars and Heavenly Reward. I tend to think that the only difference between the vision of a science fiction writer and the vision of the author of the Book of Revelation is that the latter is conscious fraud (well-intended perhaps) whereas a lot of science fiction is studiously non-fraudulent and honest.

But human imagination encompasses a wide variety of forms, and incorporates both the proposals of science and theories about our ability to imagine the future—apocalyptically, rationally, or idealistically. It may be true that we can’t depend on the Congress of the United States to imagine a universal health care plan, but historically human beings have imagined worlds without war and wars between worlds. Imagination has been used to warn, excite, scare, destroy, and to reveal possibilities that would have seemed impossible if we were simply the pawns of history and the victims of the past.

We have not only imagined creator gods but a creatorless universe whose beginnings are subject to various imaginative solutions. And we need to recognize that the sciences and not just the arts rely on this value and that it worth exploration in its own right. That sentiment is encapsulated in Einstein’s famous comment, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” A certain psychological bias, familiar to humanists, may raise a flag on this value: after all, we have imagined all sorts of things, ranging from heavenly patriarchs to savior gods to a world without Jews to monsters in the deep.

But the fact that we have envisioned a full range of possibilities and have expressed it in art, literature, science and religion doesn’t diminish the need to interrogate the value. We need to encourage an awareness in the student of human values the central role of the imagined world because as Carl Sagan commented a generation ago, “imagination will carry us to worlds we can never see but without it we will go nowhere.”

These are the categories through which I think a coherent program in humanist studies can be developed. They are broad not because generalization is a good thing but because the purpose of such a program is to stress the unity of areas of discovery that are atomized in the departmental nature of the modern university.

You’ll notice that throughout this treatise there is a strong emphasis on the interrogation of tradition. I have refrained deliberately from using the word skepticism because “skepticism” is a habit of thought whereas interrogation is an active and constructive skill. Today especially skepticism is simply identified with what is not believed, what is capable of being disproved or debunked. Education needs to do more than train the seven year old not to believe in the preposterous or to look for card in the magician’s left hand when the right one is in motion. Interrogation is the constructive assessment of what is given to us in every area of knowledge and its motive force is curiosity and the desire for truth–which is the end of knowledge.

Painting Building at Goddard College

Ideally, all higher learning should emphasize interrogation, but it is difficult to move beyond canons, bibliographies and the accumulated structure that defines the modern university and college to that further horizon. Francis Bacon did it in the Novum Organum of 1626 when he challenged the grip of scholasticism and church authority on university training at Oxford and Cambridge, the reliance on authority and tradition and the dark suspicion of new forms of learning—especially experimentation.

Goddard’s program in humanist studies will not break the grip of specialization, but it will offer a humanistically critical approach to sources and authorities. We want to give students who are not content with compartmentalized learning and information a chance to be humanists in two senses: widely read and literate in a variety of disciplines, and highly critical of received opinion and tradition through developing the art of interrogation.

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3 thoughts on “Interrogating Tradition: A Prospectus for Humanist Studies*

  1. Pingback: Interrogating Tradition: A Prospectus for Humanist Studies* (via The New Oxonian) « The New Oxonian

  2. Pingback: A Humanist Syllabus? | The New Oxonian

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