By IHE Fellow Zena Hitz
When I re-emerged in 2015 from three years in a monastery, everyone was writing about “the crisis in the humanities”. Judging by how many classics departments and liberal arts colleges have shut their doors in the past six years, it’s fair to think the situation has advanced from a crisis to a collapse. And yet, my experience has shown me the situation from a different angle. From the right perspective, one can catch a glimpse of a movement from crisis to renewal. When I wrote my first piece about learning for its own sake as mattering for the inner life, I felt like a crazy person, all alone in my thinking. I had combed the magazines looking for sympathetic writers, and mostly failed. Even now I meet academics who think that the very idea of learning for its own sake lies under taboo. You just have to say it matters for business and justice. (The fact that these two goals were both judged legitimate defenses of the humanities tells us something about the incoherence of that conventional view.)
Likewise, the great books used to be something to be shy about. To praise them made one sound at least twenty years out of step, if not a full-on white supremacist. To say something as obvious and banal as “Shakespeare and Plato are essential reading” felt like taking one’s life in one’s hands.
My own work defending liberal learning and great books over these years has connected me with people from all over the world from all walks of life, who are, to put it bluntly, bananas for learning for its own sake. I began to welcome many of these hungry learners into an open online community of learning, the Catherine Project. From there some have begun to move onto the more intensive programs at St. John’s College, where I have taught these past six years.
In the past few years alone, consider the rise to prominence of the distinguished black educators Anika Prather and Angel Parham, both of whom praise the western canon as enabling the liberation of enslaved peoples and their descendants. Cornel West, too, has dedicated much of his time the past few years in the promotion of liberal education.
The Princeton classicist Dan-El Padilla, a Dominican immigrant raised in poverty, has sparked a large-scale conversation about his concerns about a white supremacist heritage of classics. Yet Padilla himself appeared recently with another Dominican-American with a similar background, Roosevelt Montas. Montas has worked extensively in the storied Core Curriculum at Columbia University and just published a book on the irreplaceable value of the great books. We are beginning to see a truly interracial renewal of the great books movement, true to its radical egalitarian roots in the early twentieth century.
Looking around the educational landscape this winter, I see many green shoots reaching for the light, far too many to be crushed. Liberal education is not dead. It lives and flourishes in these dark times, and its renewal can sustain us and prepare us for whatever is to come.