THE TRIUMPH OF THE HUMANITIES
DEVELOPMENT MAY be forecast; revolution cannot. No one in 1850 could have predicted the shapes into which academic knowledge would shift by 1900. In probably the least likely turn, a congeries of studies almost unknown to earlier American colleges rapidly gained prominence in the liberal arts curriculum. These usurpers, dethroning the Greek and Latin regnant for centuries, were “the humanities.” Even against the background of the flux that has always typified American higher education, this outcome was extraordinary. 1 In what we usually regard as an Age of Science, and despite the powerful influences delineated in the preceding pages, it was not the natural or social sciences that provided the great novelty of academe, but the new humanities. 2
The word itself was anything but new. Humanity in its academic meaning appeared in English in the later fifteenth century, arriving via French and Italian from Latin humanitas. The neologism originally served to distinguish secular studies (principally of Greek and Latin texts: the literae humaniores) from theological ones, that is, humanity as opposed to divinity. By Bacon's time humanity had come to demarcate classical learning from both divinity on one side and natural philosophy (science) on the other. 3 The word in Bacon's sense was still current, though not frequently used, in American colleges during the early nineteenth century.
Both its frequency and what it referred to soon changed dramatically. In 1850 the term still denoted principally the study of Greek and Latin, carried on through close attention to grammar and calculated to impose “mental discipline” on the unformed boys who inhabited classical (or “grammar”) schools and colleges. 4 But by 1870 the officers of even fairly traditional colleges could already distinguish in their educational goals between “literary culture” or “liberal culture” and classical study. Humanity in its plural form soon attached itself to this broadening “liberal culture.” 5 By 1900 the “humanities” meant a wide range of “culture studies,” most new to the curriculum: literature, philosophy, art history, often general history as well. The humanities still included Greek and Latin; but even these traditional studies had got a new label—“the classics”—and acquired a novel literary orientation and cultivating aim. 6
These arrivistes did not wander onto the scene by chance. As classical college evolved into modern university, knowledge itself changed in na