Bonfire of the Humanities

A legendary editor at Harvard University Press asks, What good are books?

The problem is that issues never get broached because they have been ruled out-of-bounds. This is, no doubt, a perennial problem in the academic world, which is why people in Europe have had low expectations for innovation from universities. But—as my friends in China remind me—the U.S. is a young country and its scholarly traditions are not well rooted yet. The way our society is structured, the university is the main home for the intellect, and humanism is the chief defender of its obligation to judge, in a Kantian sense.

The abandonment of critical inquiry and the renunciation of bold hopes for innovation are presented as themselves the very cutting edge of innovation. This is why the present moment in scholarship is hard to understand for what it is. But if we attend to details, we can see how this boldness justifies abandoning what I would call the Hippocratic Oath for humanists, which demands that scholars not pass by ideas or evidence that contradict their theories but face them, just as a doctor can leave no sick person untreated. With such goals and aspirations, the humanist will reclaim the university from its mere administrators, who dictate an efficient conformity.

The modern university takes the present organization of knowledge into separate disciplines, all those gated communities, as inevitable and natural as the categories of niche marketing. The blinkered professional who has become the norm is not an intellectual who reads promiscuously in the hope he or she might come upon a book that will change his or her life. There is something wrong about telling the young to curb their enthusiasms, for these are the signs of life in every field. There is an absolute symmetry between what the book is in production and what it is in reception—a gathering—and it is this symmetry that makes for the special beauty of the book. If the life of a scholar is a calling, a vocation, it is one that is analogous to the calling a book makes to us to read it and judge it. A book is not, nor ever will be, a dump. The book emerges from silence, not from cacophony. The book features the highest signal-to-noise ratio possible of any means of communication.

The message emerging dares us to look at new things and develop new theories. Humanists have to counter the iconoclastic attitude about books and art that has come to dominate the humanities. We have to embrace art once again and show how the interaction of readers, viewers, and listeners can precipitate the sorts of experiences that allow our souls to spring forth into momentary glory. Experience is for the humanist what experiments are for the scientist, the key events we seek to explore.

If the humanities are about judgment, they are about that judgment that something is new in my interaction with some artistic objects. When we are ready to explain ourselves and when we are ready again to encounter the artwork—that is, when we set our eyes once again upon the prize of the aesthetic experience—we will find students and we will find the support we so desperately need to do our work.


Lindsay Waters is executive editor of the humanities at Harvard University Press. This essay is adapted from his recent book,Enemies of Promise (Prickly Paradigm Press).

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