How Renaissance Humanists Can Help Resolve the Crisis of Liberal Education

On today’s college campuses, many professors who teach the humanities and social sciences have lost faith in the liberal arts as they were once understood, and even the defenders of these fields of study often resort to such vague justifications as the cultivation of “critical-thinking skills.” Arguing that the case for liberal education that was commonplace a half-century ago is no longer convincing, James Hankins urges modern-day humanists to look to the example of their 14th-century predecessors. Hankins begins by explaining what set these early Renaissance thinkers apart from the ancient Greeks and Romans whose work they so admired:

Moral excellence and practical wisdom, [to these humanists], are not acquired by following the teachings of any philosophical school—a strategy foreclosed by the position of Christianity in Renaissance society—but by literary study of the humanities, which included moral philosophy in its curriculum. It also included eloquence, the skill of creating consensus in societies divided by interests and warring passions. Study of the humanities also had as its purpose affiliating those with zeal for humanity into a great tradition, a tradition laid down by the ancients and cultivated by devoted souls over many centuries. That tradition inculcated the love of civilization and hatred of barbarism. This meant a deep preference for education, fine behavior, civil conversation, a common culture, and peace. It meant deep opposition to ignorance, moral corruption and selfishness, factionalism, cultural fragmentation, and violence. The humanities were more than a curriculum of studies: they taught a way of life.

Hankins’s proposal for reviving this vision is deeply intertwined with his understanding of the role of religion in Renaissance thought, and while the religion in question is the Christian one, it is a vision that can appeal to Jews as well:

I have two main recommendations, or observations. One is my belief that humanism took a wrong turn when it tried to turn itself into a religion of humanity in the 19th century, above all in the work of Auguste Comte. . . . In recent times this kind of humanism, merging with progressive politics, has become increasingly imperialistic and destructive. It is driven by an increasingly fanatical ideal of egalitarianism without possessing, in my opinion, any rich understanding of human character or prudent political judgment.

The humanities as the Renaissance conceived them were compatible with the dominant religion of the time, Christianity, not a substitute for it. They offered a culture that was universal but not “comprehensive.” . . . It was a culture that laid a foundation for common meanings, values, and purposes in civil life, but left the higher ends of human life, and the next life, to religion. To put this in Thomistic terms, the Renaissance educational program concerned itself primarily with the natural end of humanity, its temporal ends, while leaving the supernatural end to religion.

Read more at Public Discourse

More about: Education, Humanism, Liberal arts, Religion, Renaissance


Universities Are in Thrall to a Constituency That Sees Israel as an Affront to Its Identity

Commenting on the hearings of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on Tuesday about anti-Semitism on college campuses, and the dismaying testimony of three university presidents, Jonah Goldberg writes:

If some retrograde poltroon called for lynching black people or, heck, if they simply used the wrong adjective to describe black people, the all-seeing panopticon would spot it and deploy whatever resources were required to deal with the problem. If the spark of intolerance flickered even for a moment and offended the transgendered, the Muslim, the neurodivergent, or whomever, the fire-suppression systems would rain down the retardant foams of justice and enlightenment. But calls for liquidating the Jews? Those reside outside the sensory spectrum of the system.

It’s ironic that the term colorblind is “problematic” for these institutions such that the monitoring systems will spot any hint of it, in or out of the classroom (or admissions!). But actual intolerance for Jews is lathered with a kind of stealth paint that renders the same systems Jew-blind.

I can understand the predicament. The receptors on the Islamophobia sensors have been set to 11 for so long, a constituency has built up around it. This constituency—which is multi-ethnic, non-denominational, and well entrenched among students, administrators, and faculty alike—sees Israel and the non-Israeli Jews who tolerate its existence as an affront to their worldview and Muslim “identity.” . . . Blaming the Jews for all manner of evils, including the shortcomings of the people who scapegoat Jews, is protected because, at minimum, it’s a “personal truth,” and for some just the plain truth. But taking offense at such things is evidence of a mulish inability to understand the “context.”

Shocking as all that is, Goldberg goes on to argue, the anti-Semitism is merely a “symptom” of the insidious ideology that has taken over much of the universities as well as an important segment of the hard left. And Jews make the easiest targets.

Read more at Dispatch

More about: Anti-Semitism, Israel on campus, University