Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Founding Humanities: Returning to the Human

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Founding Humanities: Returning to the Human

Article excerpt

Charges and Challenges

In 2004 I was asked to be the founding chair of a new humanities department at Villanova University. The task came with several charges. (1) First, in response to a growing sense that Catholic universities needed to renew a distinctive sense of identity and purpose, the department would aim to bring Catholic intellectual life into greater focus and clarity across a variety of disciplines. (2) Second, responding to the contemporary tendency toward fragmentation and specialization, the new department would seek to integrate knowledge. Finally, it would create an undergraduate course of studies and hire ten tenure-track faculty from a variety of fields.

Resolving these charges meant wrestling with questions that bedevil the academy, both Catholic and secular. What is a distinctively Catholic education? Why are the humanities in crisis, and how can we respond? What are the causes of fragmentation? What does it mean to bring knowledge into a unity? Yet a survey of the contemporary literature does not always provide clear answers. We are told that higher education is failing to form democratic citizens; that it cannot justify the liberal arts; that it suffers from declining intellectual standards; is unable or unwilling to ask the most basic human questions; is too fragmented and specialized; is marred by intolerance and political correctness; is not diverse enough; and/or is becoming a corporate enterprise run by a cadre of managerial professionals who disenfranchise the faculty. (3) But reading about the different aspects of the crisis to find a response is like trying to fit the pieces of a mosaic together without knowing what image we are trying to create. The whole within which each fragment can be situated is missing.

What is this missing whole? Common sense suggests that it is a compelling sense of the human. After all, one cannot begin to study a subject unless one has some adequate sense of what is to be studied. Further, one does not want to study a subject intensively unless one is somehow in love with it, and one cannot love without knowing what is loved. Finally, any education worthy of its name does not settle for imparting marketable skills; it aims at the whole of human life. Such an education cultivates what Thomas Merton experienced at Columbia in Mark Van Doren's famous course on Shakespeare: "It was the only place where I ever heard anything really sensible said about any of the things that were really fundamental--life, death, love, sorrow, fear, wisdom, suffering, eternity." (4) In such an education, the human is not just the subject of the humanities; it is also the object of one's efforts at caring formation. Whether self-conscious or not, every kind of education aims to cultivate a determinate kind of person. Every education implies a telos to human existence. If educators do not have a compelling sense of the world and the place of the human person within it, on what basis can we teach the humanities? On what basis do we decide how we want our students to be affected by the education we offer? So at the core of every approach to education lies an implicit anthropology that guides our approach and our goals. Consequently, I believed that renewing the humanities from a Catholic perspective would have to place at the heart of its project a reflective inquiry into the human.

My experience in the hiring process reinforced my intuition that the contemporary crisis in humanities is related to a loss of the human. Over a five-year period during the department's founding, I participated in the process of hiring ten faculty members from a variety of disciplines. Because it was a buyer's market, I read about 2,500 applications from people trained at our most prestigious universities. This was exhilarating and distressing. On the one hand, there are signs that unconventional academics are struggling to break out of their disciplinary constraints to seek out new ways of inquiring into human things. …

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