A More Human Humanities
Humanities courses need to challenge their students to know the material thoroughly and to have considered its significance deeply. In other words, they need to be more rigorous.
The extent of the liberal arts curriculum which remains at Harvard is entirely vestigial, such as the General Education program, distribution requirements, and the language requirement. When a limb exists without its body, it seizes to have any utility. The language requirement is unsure of its own goal, and whatever end it may have it surely does not reach.
My grandfather, Martin Glassman, passed away last week at the age of 89. He was born in Brooklyn to parents who immigrated from Eastern Europe, and was raised in the Bronx. When he was a child he suffered from a seizure disorder that impaired his intelligence. His parents did not treat him well, so at 17 he enlisted to fight in the Korean War. When he returned he moved to New Haven, Conn. In his career as a postal worker, he was bullied for being Jewish and not intellectually advanced. As a result he was only promoted one time in his whole career. Nothing was given to him in his life, but he never complained.
Such is the case with the study of the humanities. The humanities are the disciplines of the soul. They are immaterial, but not abstract. Philosophy, at its best, is practical and even urgent. We study the humanities because they help us understand what it is to be human. Understanding something fully means also comprehending its “telos.” The true humanist is pushed towards pursuing a more good life because of his studies.
Imagine what you would be if you had no memory; if the present had a monopoly on existence. One cannot exist without a past. The emptiness of a life without memory extends to the case of any group, whether it be a family, state, civilization, or the collective society of humanity. At its core, this is why we must study history, to answer “Who are we?”