Michael Levenson’s Op-Ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch

The Humanities Change Lives

Go to original in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The humanities will not go quietly. They won’t disappear unless and until we agree to be machines instead of persons. As long as we still ask about a past before we were born, or the lives of others in distant places, or the meaning of actions and objects we don’t understand, or the values by which we choose to live, there will be the humanities. You can starve them, but you can’t kill them off.

It’s important to stay reasonable as we discuss the future of universities, but now is also the time to be angry. The crudeness of the debate is unworthy; it has become shallow and sordid. This idea that the humanities are self-involved and impractical, preening and primping, is a cartoon that does not tell the truth. Elitist? Then why are students of every background and aspiration intent to study Descartes, Rembrandt, DuBois? Impractical? The record is clear: Business leaders preach the virtue of flexible thought that sees the possible surrounding the actual, and the Chinese now require liberal arts for first-year students across their country, in an effort to break the grip of rote learning. Jargon-ridden? Sometimes. But any field – from sailing to baking – develops a language of its own, opaque to newcomers.

You can find narcissists under any rock, but anyone who spends time in earnest conversation with students these days – young philosophers, classicists, religious and literary historians – knows that they are engaged and transformed by the subjects they study. And that students admire their instructors. Ask yourself: Why do they refuse to sell out – the ill-paid, hardworking young scholar/teachers? Why are they stubborn in their sense of calling? Why do students still testify to the way lives can change in a seminar on the French Revolution, Etruscan art, the Irish literary revival, the ethics of Aristotle?

What has skewed the debate is the absence of the very virtues taught in the humanities: patience, thoroughness, close attention, multiple perspectives, honest self-questioning. Yes, the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) are indispensable. As we invent and make new things for our material flourishing, we need training and skills for more students. But who can doubt that we also need to comprehend the significance of what we make? What’s it for? How does it belong to our higher purposes? How does it fit within the wide context that surrounds our narrow band of life?

In fact, STEM and the humanities (HUMS) are close siblings. There is making and thinking on both sides. We learn from one another, stir each other to new ideas – physicists and historians, anthropologists and classicists, engineers and artists. Within the university, scientists and humanists have mutual, abiding respect. We share the cause of free inquiry that must follow its path to understanding, wherever it leads.

No making without meaning seems indisputable. Does anyone really want to live as an amnesiac, with no history to remember or future to project? No one wants to be lost in space and time, unsure of before and after, unclear about near and far. Everyone wants to express their thoughts with conviction and lucidity. We all need to compare ourselves to others; we need contexts for our actions. This is what the humanities give. Our subjects are anything but luxuries: They are the conditions of human thriving.

Nowadays, we specialize in the hysteria of false urgency. Everything will be changed by tomorrow, people say. We won’t need lecturers, who appear in the morning, fueled by coffee and vision, trying not only to teach their subjects but also to show in voice, gesture and glinting eyes why the subject matters. Everything can be online, we’re told. We don’t need to gather, to share the rhythm of thought, just because people have done this since Socrates met them in the agora.

I love the screens: They too have glinting eyes. Connections across waters and continents have changed my life, my teaching. As they change more, I’ll be there. But let’s not be hysterical. We still look more or less like those who lived thousands of years ago; our brains aren’t much faster; we still soften to a blazing sunset and search for words to explain the mystery. Really, what could be more arrogant than to think that the Transformation-of-Everything would happen in our lifetime?

The world is changing, but – sorry, anti-humanists – it’s still recognizable. If you come to a classroom (instead of imagining one), you’ll find that present-generation students resemble students of the past far more than they differ from them. Twitter hasn’t created robots. Students want to sift meanings, recover the past, articulate values, discover a vocation and fall in love.

Humanities Week will be held at U.Va. from April 8 through 12.

Michael Levenson, William B. Christian Professor of English at the University of Virginia, is director of the Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures and author most recently of “Modernism.” He can be reached at

  1. on November 6, 2013 at 6:24 am | Reply >

    I wanted to thank you for this good read!!

    I absolutely enjoyed every little bit of it. I have you bookmarked to look at new stuff you post…

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