The Humanities Are Dead | Opinion

The line between toppling statues and burning books is razor thin.

Of course, you'd need at least a cursory education in the humanities to understand why. But if recent events have taught us one thing, it's that American education no longer includes the humanities.

The humanities—along with anthropology, sociology and related fields—are supposed to convey an appreciation for culture. Language, art, sculpture, drama, literature, architecture, fashion, design and poetry provide ways to communicate with the past. They teach us about the range of human difference that coexists with basic human sameness.

Rubens painted stunning portraits of the most beautiful women of his time. What made them so beautiful? They were fat. Double chins, round hips, full figures—hardly the contemporary vision of beauty. When food is scarce, only the wealthy are fat. It's a perspective alien to our own time.

Shelley's "Ozymandias" tells of a "shattered visage," lying in the desert, "whose frown, and wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command, tell that its sculptor well those passions read." Time had reduced this "King of Kings" to a dim, dismembered, buried memory. Poetry resurrected him as a warning to those too taken with their own grandeur.

America's recent college graduates appear ignorant of such niceties. They see every figure, every icon and every expression solely through a contemporary lens. They simplify everything as either progressive or evil— and then move to strike down evil.

The Confederate Constitution, and the speeches of its president, Jefferson Davis, contain countless lessons. Building upon the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, they tweak a few words and change a few emphases to yield a racial stratification purportedly blessed by God and nature. Our own three post-war constitutional amendments, built upon that same foundation, instead find God and nature blessing equality and freedom.

A humanist might compare the documents seeking ways to help society avoid ever again falling again into an acceptance of racism. A humanist might wonder how the symbols of secession became symbols of patriotism. A humanist might track America's several reassessments of the Confederacy to gain insights into the changing nature of American society.

Today's young progressives, however, cannot fathom even learning anything—even salutary lessons—from a race-based, slave-based society.

Robert E. Lee was a figure of historic complexity, a man torn by conflicting loyalties. Shakespeare could have written him soliloquies rivaling those of Hamlet, extracting life lessons about courage in battle and nobility in defeat. But the judgment of today's young progressives? Purge the villain.

Thomas Jefferson penned one of history's most elegant paeans to liberty. George Washington dispensed with stratified royalty and nobility in favor of a broad-based citizenry. Both owned slaves. The potential lessons are immense. They, like all people, were products of the society in which they lived. Did they appreciate the obvious internal tensions? Today's young progressives are uninterested. Slavers are unworthy of respect, period—nothing more ought to be considered.

Painting of Thomas Jefferson
Painting of Thomas Jefferson VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images

Teddy Roosevelt was history's greatest conservationist. He bequeathed his love of the wilderness, and many of his nature trophies, to New York's Museum of Natural History. The grand statue adorning its entrance, TR astride a horse flanked by walking figures identifiable as an African and a Native American, was dedicated to highlight his kinship with all of humanity. To the contemporary eye, however, the walking figures appear stereotypical and subservient. An institution dedicated to the humanities—say a museum—could develop an entire curriculum around such a statue. But to the progressives running this museum, it's a dated embarrassment begging to be retired.

Christopher Columbus was a bold explorer who sailed into the unknown, changing history both for the better and for the worse. Today's young progressives see only the worse. Lincoln freed slaves who approached his memory with gratitude. But today's young progressives see no reason to be grateful.

It's been commonplace for years—at least on the Right—to decry the hollowing out of humanities education and the abandonment of the Western canon. It is now worse than anyone imagined. American universities have demonstrably failed to teach our young that our cultural legacy has inherent value. It's only a matter of time before they discover that text can be more offensive than sculpture. With that discovery, books will burn.

America is experiencing the zealotry associated with the birth of a new faith. From Abraham to Muhammad, religious founders have toppled the idols of the old order. A humanist, historian or anyone versed in any traditional faith would see it. American media instead reports about idealistic, if misguided, vandalism.

The humanities are indeed dead in America. It's long past time to stop funding the institutions that pretend to preserve them, subsidizing students who pretend to study them and paying the faculties who've failed to teach them. Once we've cleared away the detritus, perhaps we can invest in a humanities education that teaches the value of our rich cultural legacy.

Bruce Abramson, Ph.D. J.D., is a senior fellow and director at ACEK Fund and the author of American Restoration: Winning America's Second Civil War.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.