In his guest essay on this blog last Thursday, Fred Beuttler suggested that there is “another cultural battle in which most of us are still in the middle of,” a battle of “not so much Culture Wars, but rather C. P. Snow’s two cultures, the relation of the humanities to the sciences, in the education of free citizens in a democracy.” He argued that the current and prevalent rationale for requiring students to take humanities courses – “critical thinking skills” – is an inadequate defense of the humanities and “puts us humanists at a distinct disadvantage in the curricular and departmental ‘wars’ taking place in our universities.” He goes on to suggest that it might be time, or past time, for the humanities disciplines to define themselves as conveying some common and necessary content, and to contend for the value of that content and for its important place in the curriculum.
I think Prof. Beuttler is right – “critical thinking skills” is poor ground on which to make a stand. I am trying to figure out a better stand to take. I suppose that’s the presentist concern undergirding my dissertation: the fight in higher education has gone from “what literature, what history, should we require students to study” to “why require the study of literature or history at all?” Of course, as Prof. Beuttler suggests, that latter question – why require these subjects at all? – is not a new one, though it does need a new answer.
In my research for the chapter I am writing now, I have come across various old answers to that question. And no answer was more jarring to me than the rationale provided by a group of Stanford engineering professors in 1925. Continue reading