Sunday, July 20, 2014

Humanities and Liberal Arts

At high schools, colleges, and universities, one hears the phrases “liberal arts” and “humanities.” These terms are, however, poorly understood, ambiguous, and subject to misunderstandings.

The label ‘liberal arts’ emerged during the Middle Ages, when the world’s first universities were being organized - the University of Bologna was started some time prior to 1088 A.D.

“Liberal” in ‘liberal arts’ is related to the notion of freedom, and arose even earlier, during Roman times, because free men, as opposed to slaves, studied academic subjects. Of course, generalizations like that are susceptible to exceptions: Epictetus was a slave and yet authored philosophical essays.

In those medieval universities, the curriculum was structured around seven subjects: the lower level was the ‘trivium’ and consisted of grammar, logic, and rhetoric; the upper level was the ‘quadrivium’ and included arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.

From this original structure of the liberal arts we can already see the errors in the way some people currently use the term ‘liberal arts.’ From the beginning, ‘liberal arts’ included both mathematics and the observational or natural sciences.

Note also the medieval understanding of music: it is grouped among the mathematical disciplines. Some music historians use the word ‘objective’ to describe the music of the Middle Ages, indicating the way in which medieval composers, performers and listeners perceived the music: the intervals between notes, and the timing of the notes, was calculated according to principles of composition.

At the present time, the phrase ‘liberal arts’ has been expanded beyond its original meaning to include not only the observational and empirical sciences - chemistry, physics, biology, geology, etc. - as well as the ‘social sciences’ or ‘soft sciences’ like history, psychology, linguistics, literature, etc.

The contemporary understanding of ‘liberal arts’ does not include strictly professional programs like engineering, law, medicine, or business, as they are currently offered at American colleges and universities.

The ‘humanities’ are a subset of the liberal arts. They include history and literature - and the sub-disciplines of art history and music history. One dictionary defines ‘humanities’ as

learning or literature concerned with human culture, esp. literature, history, art, music, and philosophy.

The defining characteristic of the liberal arts is that they are not applied or practical. Biology is one of the liberal arts, while medicine is not. Physics is part of the liberal arts, while engineering is not. The dictionary defines ‘liberal arts’ as

academic subjects such as literature, philosophy, mathematics, and social and physical sciences as distinct from professional and technical subjects.

While debates will continue to rage about the proper role of the liberal arts in college curricula, and about the value of the humanities in professional preparation, such debates will be meaningful only when the terms are properly understood.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Politicized Romanticism

During and after whichever era one might mark out as the Romanticist Era, Romanticism not only left its fingerprints on that marked style of poetry, painting, and music which bear its name, but it also influenced the way in which history is written and interpreted.

While students have long been taught the identifying markers of Romanticist poetry, Romanticist painting, and Romanticist music, the hallmarks of Romanticist History are less well known.

One of the markers of Romanticist history is ‘hero worship,’ a phrase whose origins are unclear. The Oxford English Dictionary records its first use in the sense of a noun as occurring in 1713, and in the sense of a verb as occurring in 1857. The Merriam Webster dictionary, however, lists the first noun usage as 1774, and the first verb usage as 1884.

In any case, the dates for the appearance of the phrase ‘hero worship’ neatly fit into most of the common timelines given for Romanticism.

Whatever “hero worship” may be, it is a failure to think critically - the habit of lavishing uncritical praise on a historical figure, and the willingness to shape narratives around the axiom that some such individual must have been virtuous or noble or good. Napoleon is one example of someone who received such treatment by those historians who wished to treat him as a heroic figure.

What “hero worship” did to the individual, Romantic nationalism did for entire ethnic groups. Historians wrote global histories from the perspective of one nation, and in the process, beginning with the earliest documented traces of that nation, overemphasized and exaggerated the nation’s continuity with those most ancient known sources. For many European nation-states, this took the form of early medieval sources.

Paradoxically, Romanticist history can err by either being too general or by being too specific. In the former case, for the sake of forming a grand narrative, some historians use very little actual evidence - the names, dates, and places which are the data points of history. In the latter case, some historians used quite specific and concrete data, but, e.g., limited it to data about one individual (in the case of hero worship), about one nation (in the case of nationalism), or about one event (if that event were chosen as pivotal in some narrative).

Romanticist historians, while valuing narrative, tend to value a specific narrative - the story of one individual or of one nation - while avoiding a broader or global narrative. Because Romanticism is subjectivism, it is not inclined to look at world history in such a way as to sift through it to find those recurring patterns which give a clue as to what human nature - the universal human constant - is.

Although the Romanticist writing, or rewriting, of history made its noisy appearance in the late 1700s and early 1800s, its impact on historiography is still with us. Allen Guelzo notes that what was perceived as the end of the Romanticist era may have only been its sublimation, but not its death:

The Routledge Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era takes 1850 as a cutoff date for the Romantic revolution, and there was at that time no shortage of voices that wept for Romanticism’s demise at the hands of the triumphant bourgeoisie.

Indeed, many observers of postmodern culture see the lasting legacy of Romanticism in it. The many ways in which late twentieth and early twenty-first century narrative rejects rationality are the afterglow of the original Romanticism. Consider the imperative given in the Star Wars movies: “Feel, don’t think.” Postmodern sentiments like “follow your heart” and “follow your bliss” are so numerous that scholars have difficulty in discovering who wrote them first. Allen Guelzo continues:

Rousseau’s curdled contempt for reason may have lost its initial momentum a century after his epiphany on the road to Vincennes, but not its enduring attraction.

The Romanticist triumph of emotion over reason, of passion over logic, manifests itself in the preference of hero-narrative or nation-narrative over a global grand narrative. Avoiding the grand narrative allows the Romanticist to avoid a sense of teleology - a sense that history has not only causes in the past which push it forward, but also a target in the future which pulls it forward. Given that there will be some final state of things in this world, it is reasonable to ask whether, if we were to know what that state will be, we might not be able to calculate how the present state of affairs is slowly unfolding toward that future state. Historian Tim Blanning writes:

There has also been a corresponding reaction to the culture of reason at a more intellectual level in the shape of strands known collectively as “postmodernism.” Thankfully, there is no space to investigate this richly various – and contradictory – phenomenon. It must suffice to assert that all postmodernists have in common a rejection of grand narrative, teleology, and rationalism. They squarely belong with the culture of feeling, in a line that stretches back to fin de si├Ęcle and romanticism (and indeed to the baroque). But, as before, this is not just another spin of the cycle’s wheel, but a dialectical progression. Where it will take us next is anyone’s guess. That the central axiom of romanticism – “absolute inwardness” – will have a role to play is certain. The romantic revolution is not over yet.

To be sure, not all of Romanticism’s impacts were harmful. It created a burst of intellectual energy around the scientific study of historical linguistics and philology. Beethoven’s music and Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings mark objective points in art history, whether or not one subjectively considers them to be good or bad. Lord Byron died in an effort preserve Greek freedom in the face of Islamic tyranny.

But historians influenced by Romanticism tended to produce narratives in which ambiguous individuals were recast as clear heroes or clear villains, and the power of the narrative was regarded as more important than its attention to actual data points of recorded events. These narratives were constructed with no regard for the broader global grand narrative, and with no consideration of a goal or teleology in the flow of history.

Romanticist history texts are often suspiciously devoid of specifics, or suspiciously loaded with specific evidence about a skewed sample - one heroic individual, or one cherish national ethnic group.