Farewell to Judgment

Article excerpt

THE SCIENCES AIM TO EXPLAIN THE WORLD: they build theories that are tested through experiment, and which describe the workings of nature and the deep connections between cause and effect. Nothing like that is true of the humanities. The works of Shakespeare contain important knowledge. But it is not scientific knowledge, nor could it ever be built into a theory. It is knowledge of the human heart. Shakespeare doesn't teach us what to believe; he shows us how to feel- case by case, person by person, mood by mood.

As universities expanded, the humanities began to displace the sciences in the curriculum. Students wished to use their time at university to cultivate their leisure interests and to improve their souls rather than to learn hard facts and complex theories. And there arose a serious question as to why universities were devoting their resources to subjects that made so little discernible difference in the wider world. What good do the humanities do, and why should students take three or four years out of their lives in order to read books which, if they were interested, they would read in any case, and which, if they were not interested, would never do them the least bit of good?

In the days when the humanities involved knowledge of classical languages and an acquaintance with German scholarship, there was no doubt that they required real mental discipline, even if their point could reasonably be doubted. But once subjects like English were admitted to a central place in the curriculum, the question of their validity became urgent. And then in the wake of English came the pseudo-humanities- women's studies, gay studies, and the like- which were based on the assumption that, if English is a discipline, so too are they. And since there is no cogent justification for women's studies that does not dwell upon the subject's ideological purpose, the entire curriculum in the humanities began to be seen in ideological terms. The inevitable result was the delegitimizing of English. Unlike women's studies, which has impeccable feminist credentials (why else was it invented?), English focuses on the works of dead white European males whose values would be found offensive by young people today. So maybe such a subject should not be studied, or studied only as a lesson in social pathology.

People of my generation were taught to believe that there are human universals that remain constant from age to age. We were taught to study literature in order to sympathize with life in all its forms. It doesn't matter, we were told, if Shakespeare's political assumptions do not coincide with ours. His plays do not aim to indoctrinate; they aim to present believable characters in believable situations, and to do so in heightened language that would set our imaginations and our sympathies on fire. Of course, Shakespeare invites judgment, as do all writers of fiction. But it is notpo/zizcaZjudgment that is relevant. We judge Shakespeare plays in terms of their expressiveness, truth to life, profundity, and beauty. And that is how you justify the study of English, as a training in this other kind of judgment, which leaves politics behind.

This other kind of judgment used to be called "taste." When the humanities emerged in the late 18th century it was in order to develop taste in literature, art, and music. And so it remained right down to the time of my youth. The central discipline of a subject like English was criticism, and you taught criticism by getting students to raise questions about their own and others' emotions, and by exploring the ways in which literature can both ennoble and demean the human condition. It was not an easy task, but there were examples to follow- great critics like R. P. Blackmur, F. R. Leavis, William Empson, and T. S. Eliot, who had raised the study of literature to a level of seriousness that justified its claim to be an academic subject.

The same was true of art history and musicology. …