Rediscovering the Renaissance; We Should Not Overlook Great Works

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 20, 2006 | Go to article overview
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Rediscovering the Renaissance; We Should Not Overlook Great Works


Byline: Suzanne Fields, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

This is not a great century for the humanities. The great works that once were essential to define the educated man are barely tolerated in our great universities. By one estimate, only four percent of the bachelor of arts degrees are awarded to English majors, and only two percent to scholars of history. Nearly a quarter of all bachelor's degrees are awarded to majors in business and business-related fields.

There are several reasons why. A college education is expensive and student loans are burdensome. Students, and particularly the parents who flirt with bankruptcy to send their kids to college, want degrees in subjects that lead to something practical. Practical means making money. So young people prefer engineering, science, medicine, law and business. Arts and letters get short shrift.

The humanities faculties, furthermore, are usually riddled with political correctness, with courses taught by priggish tenured professors who are determined to persuade their students to think left rather than to think critically. This was the concern of Lawrence Summers, who was deposed as president of Harvard for trying to impart actual learning into the humanities as taught on the Charles.

"At a time when the median age of our tenured professoriate is approaching 60 the renewal of the faculty has to be a central concern," he said in his letter of resignation, implying that the Faculty of Arts and Sciences had grown smug, stuffy, stodgy and self-satisfied.

Harvard is typical. David Horowitz describes in his new book, "The Most Dangerous Academics in America," how the problem has become pandemic on campus. "In the university in the social sciences and humanities there is no bottom line for bad ideas," he says. "In the real world a Marxist would be regarded as flat-earthist, yet in the university they occupy positions as professors of history, political science and even (at the University of Massachusetts) economists."

Others at Harvard nevertheless deserve credit for working beneath the academic radar to revive interest in the humanities. Harvard Press publishes a series of important texts from the Italian Renaissance, edited for a broad readership among a new generation of readers, presenting largely forgotten literature that is essential for understanding how and why the humanities were once recognized as crucial to the development of the educated man. These works take their theme from Pier Paolo Vergerio, a Italian Renaissance humanist, whose work six centuries ago defined liberal arts studies.

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