An ancient question swirls around the humanities to vex higher education: whether virtue can be taught. Plato thought it could and that the wise were good. Those working in the real world apparently agree when they call on colleges to counter contemporary greed with ethics courses for businessmen, physicians and environmentalists to be.
It doesn’t seem to do much good.
Many scholars find such courses frivolous, compared with literary criticism, epistemology or historiography. Humanities, they say, should be theoretical or descriptive, not prescriptive, emphasizing diverse perspectives instead of laying down some single truth as law. The humanities ought to concern themselves with historical and social differences.
Their critics say pluralism clouds our moral vision. They reminisce over a curriculum remembered from the Good Old Days, when right was right and we all were Europeans. Last Fall, National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Lynne A. Cheney issued a report highly critical of our nation’s colleges and universities, a report that echoed the complaints of Allan Bloom’s best seller, “The Closing of the American Mind.” Former Secretary of Education William Bennett and the Wall Street Journal singled out Stanford University’s core curriculum as a national disgrace. The humanities, they said, are letting down the nation.
But the real question here is whether virtue can be taught. A recent pamphlet issued by the American Council of Learned Societies defended the humanities, by suggesting that it can’t.
“Speaking for the Humanities” was written by six professors of literature and languages, speaking for a larger group of scholars who direct interdisciplinary centers all across the nation, from UC Irvine to Harvard. They began with the simple observation that every idea has a history. Even the Great Books develop from particular standpoints, perspectives and human interests. Consequently, these professors suggest, there can be no objectivity, no established truths and values applying to all humankind. The best we can do is put each and every ideology into its own context. Humanistic knowledge is a form of archeology, unearthing half-concealed attitudes that generate the diversity of values in the world.
This attitude toward knowledge outrages the other side. Once values are made relative, subject to scholastic or social whimsy, wisdom is conformity and truth is politics, they claim.
Plato made this same objection once. Pluralists lack respect for truth. And with pluralists as professors, education will never make our children good. Courses in the humanities will only confuse students with alternatives. No wonder students pick and choose values the way consumers shop in malls, buying up what’s cool, tossing away what’s not. Professors do it too. They practice fads in class. Critics of humanistic pluralism insist that truth is never captive to a point of view. Morality is universal.
Then there are the most cynical of critics who agree that knowledge is produced by human interests; but they insist on ideology anyway, not because it’s true, but because it’s ours. Radical thinkers often take this point of view, be they clinic-bombing pro-lifers or Marxist feminists. They advance their own agendas and spread their propaganda.
This dispute over teaching human values goes back to ancient Athens. About 2,500 years ago, Protagoras wrote that truth is just a matter of convention. Each of us is the measure of all things, of what is true and what is not. Truth is relative to our own private point of view. And if we want others to share our own perspective, all we have to do is to persuade them and convert them. Protagoras made his living teaching students how to win at argument, provided that you paid a hefty fee. “Let the lesser argument defeat the stronger” was the motto for his school.
Socrates insisted that Protagoras had it all exactly wrong, that reality must be the measure of the man. He dared to say that real truth determined human values, not opinion polls. Justice was something we lived up to, not some concept we created with laws. Socrates’ philosophy proved unpopular in Athens. His pupil Plato took up the cause and argued that respect for objectivity distinguished philosophy from sophistry. Aristotle followed suit arguing that just as the eye can see, so reason can discern the truth. Not a single ancient Greek philosopher ever once defended Protagorean relativity. They saw it all as sophistry and sham.
This ancient disagreement between sophists and philosophers has come around again, as ancient history often seems to do. This time the sophists win. Modern pluralists explicitly espouse Protagoreanism. This does not embarrass them, since they regard philosophy as another form of rhetoric and Socrates as just another sophist. Persuasion is the master of the game. And the only thing to do is win others over to your view. The result has been a horde of humanities graduates wandering around who lost respect for truth in college. Some are in teaching as well as merchandising.
One reason for sophist victory has been the history of philosophy itself. Over the past 25 centuries so many different philosophies have come and gone that the mind’s ability to discern the truth is doubted. And the same is said for all humanities, from literature to history. Truths once believed in are now recognized as ideologies or frauds. The father of our country, who never told a lie, ran up large expense accounts. And Aristotle’s metaphysics proved to be mistaken, after dominating European and Arabic philosophy for 1500 years. No surprise, then, when pluralists embrace blindness and call it vision.
Every time historians, philosophers and literary critics have thought they’ve found the truth, they have inevitably been disappointed. This process has accelerated and the lead time between discovery and disappointment shortened. In literary theory, for example, there have been so many schools in the span of 20 years: new criticism, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstructionism and now post-modernism. No wonder lit crit is in a jaded, twisted state.
When someone reads a novel or studies history or reads an essay in philosophy, does that person recognize some eternal truth concerning human nature--or merely gain another fresh perspective? Truths about the human condition don’t stay fixed on the page. There is always another reading of a text, another time, another argument. Lines jotted down in the night turn out the next morning to be trivial. It is tempting to abandon truth as naivete and turn to sophistry.
The ancients came up with an alternative between the Scylla and Charybdis of blind dogma or blind sophistry. They called it skepticism but what they meant by skepticism was not what we mean by it today. Ancient skeptics never said they couldn’t know. They said that when we try to learn, we often don’t succeed. Still we do the best we can. Honest inquiry is something we can expect from scholars and ourselves, instead of prepackaged wisdom or facile relativity.
Reading about literature is certainly worth doing. Trying to understand the American Revolution or the nature of our Constitution would seem to be a duty. Perhaps whatever insights we acquire will prove mortal and we must make corrections in what we thought we knew. But inquiry continues. Unrestrained perspectivism undermines the confidence of reason and then all hope for truth is lost. Blind dogmatism is intolerable as well.
Truth cannot live with relativity or dogmatism but it can accommodate some skepticism, being pretty hard to find. We measure out insights one by one, against experience and the views of others. Gradually we gain convictions that will stand up over time. We act on them, even though we may later change our minds because we turned out to be mistaken.
This was Plato’s final answer to the question whether virtue can be taught: Each person can at least be taught to reason. The courage of the convictions formed, tested by reason, enables us to choose. Consequently, moral education has to be oblique, since we are the ones who make the choices. But the choices made are made because we think they’re right--and that’s the part that’s hard.
We cannot expect humanities professors to hand out wisdom to students like recipes or facts. The best humanists can do is to teach us how to think and to expose us to sufficient varieties of literature, history and philosophy, to disarm prejudice. Humanists naturally acquire a healthy resistance to dogmas and conventions. But college teachers must believe that what they teach is truth or else at least be open about what it is they do not claim to know. When all is said and done, there can be a place for skeptics in our colleges, but not for sophists too.