The Pursuit of Knowledge
By Roger Scruton from the June 2009 issue
The American Spectator
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.
Statue of William Shakespeare in Leicester Square, London
As universities expanded, the humanities began to displace the sciences from 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 to 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, which 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 not political judgment 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. Both subjects involve historical and technical knowledge. But when they emerged as university disciplines they were inseparable from the cultivation of taste. You taught these subjects by way of introducing students to the great works of our civilization (and sometimes of other civilizations too); and all the knowledge you conveyed was designed to back up your principal endeavor, which was to justify aesthetic judgments.
To teach in this way is to run a great risk. Taste and judgment are faculties that we develop: they form part of the great transition from youthful enjoyment to adult discrimination. To teach them is to offer a rite of passage, into the adult way of life. And young people today are suspicious of rites of passage unless they themselves devise them. Their rites of passage are not from adolescence but more deeply into it. This, I believe, is the key to understanding their musical taste. The songs, styles, and groups that appeal to modern adolescents are invitations to join the gang. And criticism of their music by anybody who is outside the gang is offensive—an existential affront, which threatens their core experience of social membership.
This attitude makes judgment all but impossible, and it is one reason why departments of musicology are now “into” pop music and Heavy Metal, and refrain from creating the impression among their students that they regard the Western canon as anything more than a piece of musical history. I recently had the experience of teaching a course on the philosophy of music to young people in a British university, and was acutely aware at every moment of the resentment that now greets any criticism of pop. Only comparative judgments are acceptable, and the comparison has to be between one piece of pop music and another. This is in fact an interesting exercise. You can learn a lot from comparing Peter Gabriel and the Kooks which you probably will not learn from comparing Bach and Vivaldi—a lot about the varied forms of self-indulgence in music, and the many ways of failing to make voice-led harmonies or melodies that are capable of prolongation. But you are not allowed to judge. Lives have been built around this stuff, and they are lives that are armored against the adult world and determined to avoid any passage into it. Students would listen respectfully to my examples from the classics. But they were examples of my music, and in no way to be understood as examples for them to follow. Mozart and Schubert passed before their ears like caravans on the horizon—the spectacle of a distant, exotic, and in the end irrelevant form of human life.
TEACHERS IN SUBJECTS LIKE ENGLISH and art history have also encountered this flight from judgment, and it is one source of the crisis in the humanities, since judgment is what the humanities are really about. Subjects like English and art history grew from the desire to teach young people how to discriminate art from effect, beauty from kitsch, and real from phony sentiment. This ability was not regarded as an unimportant skill like fencing or horse riding, which students are free to acquire or not, according to their interests. It was regarded as a real form of knowledge, as vital to the future of civilization as the knowledge of mathematics, and more closely connected with the moral health of society than any natural science. It was only on that assumption that the humanities acquired their central place in the modern university.
If, however, the humanities are to avoid the cultivation of taste, it is not only their central place in the curriculum that is thrown in doubt. Given their prominence in the modern university, and the fact that increasingly many students come to university who are unprepared for any other form of study, any change in the humanities is a change in the very idea of a university. Conservatives often complain about the politicization of the universities, and about the fact that only liberal views are propagated or even tolerated on campus. But they fail to see the true cause of this, which is the internal collapse of the humanities. When judgment is marginalized or forbidden nothing remains save politics. The only permitted way to compare Jane Austen and Maya Angelou, or Mozart and Meshuggah, is in terms of their rival political postures. And then the point of studying Jane Austen or Mozart is lost. What do they have to tell us about the ideological conflicts of today, or the power struggles that are played out in the faculty common room?
The true conservative cause, when it comes to the universities, ought to be the restoration of judgment to its central place in the humanities. And that shows how difficult a task the recapture of the universities will be. It will require a confrontation with the culture of youth, and an insistence that the real purpose of universities is not to flatter the tastes of those who arrive there, but to present them with a rite of passage into something better. And the word “better” simply raises the problem all over again. Who has the right to say, that one thing is better than another?
- Roger Scruton, the writer and philosopher, is most recently the author of Gentle Regrets: Thoughts From a Life (Continuum).