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reed magazine logoWinter 2009

What Will Become of the Past?

by Jon Roush

Excerpted from Daedalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1969

…The objective of a humanistic education is competence in the judgment of human creations, with that judgment informed by an awareness of pertinent historical contexts. It is, however, becoming increasingly difficult to achieve that objective for two reasons. First, the problem of obsolescence is impinging on the humanities in some special ways, and conventional humanistic pedagogy is not designed to meet that problem. Second, it is likely that our man-made environment is the most significant human creation of all time, in that it has the most immediate effect on men’s lives and souls, and yet the traditional humanistic education provides little guidance for anyone who would evaluate that complex, changing environment.


The problem of obsolescence and the problem of dealing with our present environment both pose questions about the contemporary relevance of the past and of history itself. It is important that we understand what is at issue. The question is not whether we can still profitably read The Oresteia or Il Principe; the question is whether we owe them the automatic allegiance due to forebears or whether we are somebody else’s children…

The difficulty is revealed clearly in undergraduate education in the humanistic disciplines, which is rarely based on any cogent idea of tradition. Nor is that surprising when one considers that the culture that the conventional course in the humanities “transmits” is in many ways not the one that the students have actually inherited. The problem is not simply that most of the students are being introduced to most of the materials for the first time. The real problem is that the typical curriculum in the humanities, no matter what its official rationale may be, has as its organizing objective the presentation of objects with which “any educated man should be familiar.” It is intended as an initiation into the living mysteries, and perhaps it really worked out that way when the humanities were the province of an elite, self-conscious class. For most undergraduates now, however, the house of the humanities seems not a sacred temple but a museum.

…Traditionally, the studia humanitatis have been the concern of a select group within the society. It was possible to maintain that situation until after World War II, but the situation has changed with the expansion of education and leisure. In the past, the values of the many seemed inimical to the best judgment of the few in matters intellectual and artistic. We have no assumed responsibility for democratizing that judgment, and it seems unlikely that we can do so without changing the nature of the values…

…In a democracy, conflict and diversity should be a sine qua non of education…I It may seem strange that anyone feels the need to stand up for diversity and conflict when humanism has always been characterized by a tolerance for differences of opinion, but to take this idea seriously in education could seem threatening to many people. I confess that it sometimes is to me. It suggests that the function of teachers and scholars is not to transmit, but to challenge and be challenged. It suggests that their ultimate objective is not a better understanding of their material, but a better understanding of one another, of their students, and of themselves…. it would produce educational imperatives for giving students power over matters pertinent to their education.

… As humanists, we may be good at teaching and even… good at relating, but we tend to be poor at listening and responding. We do not often hear ourselves being questioned, much less contradicted, by our students and our society; when we do, we generally do not answer, unless with a shrug… The humanist’s concern should be not simply objects and events of the past, but equally his society’s perception of those objects and events. As a teacher and scholar, he should be building utopias, real and imaginary, that are specific responses to the world in which he lives. Consider the man who lives in a modern city and understands what Chaucer has to say on the subject of love. If he is not moved to challenge those aspects of his environment that prohibit love, he is not a humanist but a pedant, and he should not be surprised if his society considers him expendable.

reed magazine logoWinter 2009