Monday, December 16, 2013

Humanities in Crisis, Medieval Style

The humanities are in crisis! The crisis seems to be that the number of students who choose to study humanities subjects in college is in steep decline, as more students pursue majors in professional fields, like business, or STEM subjects, because these subjects are widely seen by students to be better job training. Some argue that this is because our society has devalued creative and culturally generative work. To some, the narrow focus on employment and earnings is cause for lament and alarm. Others suggest that the decline is overstated, and that the humanities had a brief, anomalous post-war period of popularity. 

There are, I imagine, as many suggestions for how to reverse this crisis as there are proposed reasons for its cause. I merely want to point out that this brief "golden age" of interest in the humanities, followed by a period of greater interest in professional training has happened the outset of the first universities in Europe. In the twelfth century, the great cathedral schools at Chatres and Orléans placed particular emphasis on ancient literature and neoplatonist philosophy. In these places, "the spirit of a real humanism showed itself in an enthusiastic study of ancient authors and in the production of Latin verse of a really remarkable quality."* But this humanistic renaissance was ultimately short lived, as interest in the science of logic and the professional fields of law and medicine prevailed over interest in literature and philosophy. John of Salisbury, in the late twelfth century, complained that the logic masters knew almost nothing of literature. Fifty years later, Henri d'Andeli, a French poet, wrote that "Logic has the students, whereas Grammar [literature] is reduced in numbers, Civil Law rode gorgeously and Canon Law rode haughtily ahead of all the other arts."* Medieval is the new modern, people!

* Taken from C. H. Haskins, The Rise of Universities, ch. 2.

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