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.