Rosanna Warren in TNR on the liberal arts and their migration to the “unofficial academy.” An excerpt:
Is the situation really so dire? Well, no, and yes. The humanities are thriving, but not in the academy. Homo sapiens has always hungered for story and song. We are narrative and rhythmical creatures. Music and rhythmical language awaken our intelligence, as has been observed since Aristotle. We construe our meanings through plot: Who dunnit? Why? What happened next? And we sift our meanings—often the meanings we can hardly articulate abstractly—through song, poetry, images. Why else would we be glued to our screens, large and small, following the adventures of endless fictional characters, whether in video games or films, and why else would we mosey through the streets with digitized music and delirious rhymes flooding through our earphones? We hunger to make sense of our experience, we hunger to understand right and wrong, we hunger to name and plumb our feelings, whose intensities often blindside and bewilder us. Even generals and senators stumble into passion. We have not stopped being human, so we still need “the humanities.”
But professors of the humanities bear some responsibility for the dropping enrollments. When we filled our books and courses with wildly specialized jargon, when we narrowed the reading lists to a coterie of approved gurus, when we prosecuted literature and the arts for not exemplifying our enlightened values—should we wonder that we lost touch with the lively minds of young people, not to mention “the general reader”?
The experience of millions of people seeking living contact with the arts (largely conceived) should wake us up to a central fact: Most people need and want the arts in their lives. Our civilization may now be so coarsened that we will eliminate the humanities from our schools, and we will train citizens only for technical skills which give them no sense of what they are living for, or why. But if that happens, the humanities will continue to flow elsewhere, into unofficial forums, and people will flow with them to satisfy their needs for song and story, for explanation, for the drama of seeking and making sense. The unofficial academy will become the real academy where the arts and philosophy and history survive. And where we try to remember what it is to be fully human. But in that case, we shall also have suffered a massive loss, and it remains a serious question whether a democratic society could survive such a collapse in values, and the quest for values. That quest, ever renewed, is the province of the humanities, and it is at risk.