There are whole afternoons when a part of me wishes I had paid more attention in Bio 100 because then I might have ended up in cancer research, where being on the cutting edge makes sense. But for better or worse, I settled on literary criticism, a “discipline” that wears inverted commas around its neck like an albatross. Granted, my field does not want for practitioners who know the buzzwords that will make a dean’s eyes twinkle and that might even get the attention of a foundation: “discourse analysis” and the “social construction of reality,” hegemony and hermeneutics. They are currently the coin of our little realm, but there’s always the awful moment when even those who bandy them about must wonder if the people who wear the lab coats aren’t snickering.
After all, what would be the point of cancer research that plodded along 20 years behind the curve, or chemistry experiments done without laser microscopes? Science that isn’t “on the cutting edge”—which is to say, science that isn’t up-to-date and progressive—just isn’t, well, science. And I say this as a diabetic who knows that a cure isn’t likely to come from my end of the faculty aisle.
Worse, professors in the hard sciences know—or at least seem to know—what they’re about, so it’s no wonder I can work myself into fits of jealousy when I think about how easy it must be for, say, chemistry professors to design an appropriate curriculum for their majors: Chem I is followed by Chem II, and then—not surprisingly—by Chem III and Chem IV. Granted, they sometimes tip their hats in our direction for providing the Roman numerals that give their catalog entries a classy touch, but most of the time they are too busy writing NSA grants to get newfangled equipment or protecting their budget lines to care.
Meanwhile, those of us in the humanities muddle on, some willing to argue that studying the human mystery still makes sense, while others insist that we must be on the cutting edge. The latter camp is sexier, of course, and it comes armed with language thick enough to stop a SCLID; but the game they’re running is essentially a hustle. For the truth, as our most significant writers have always known, is that there are no new truths, but rather, older ones we rediscover again and again as the rhythms of Sophocles and Homer, Shakespeare and the Bible, dramatically remind us of our collective human fate. The writers who last, who always surprise and continually delight, go through us, rather than the other way around. They liberate the individual in ways that those with specific agendas and large claims about social transformation will never understand.
Indeed, once one gets past the rhetorical smoke screens about how important it is to read texts (they are never simply novels or plays or poems) “against the grain” or why efforts of the imagination count for less than arguments about how this or that writer was socially constructed, what we are left with is a grab bag of theories that can be applied to anything—Hamlet or a hoagie, comedia del arte or a comic book, Cervantes or a cereal box. No doubt the game has its own delights, especially for those with ingenuity and a conviction that the humanities have little if anything to do with human beings. Small wonder that their prose seems so bloodless, and their arguments so entirely divorced from the lives people actually live and care about. The cutting edge may “cut,” but I would argue that it doesn’t bleed.
Meanwhile, most students know snake oil when they see it. True enough, they will throw around high-tech words, if a professor insists on them—grades are, after all, grades—but to twist a line from Robert Frost, something there is that doesn’t love an impenetrable wall of jawbreakers. They want—yea, they deserve—better. And that’s why I will risk belaboring a ease for putting the “human” back into the humanities—knowing full well how unfashionable it is to talk about the soul’s need, much less to acknowledge how desperate our students are for even a scrap of plain truth. But such matters have always been among the central concerns of the humanities.
Where, then, does this leave those of us not on the cutting edge—especially if the race in the next century will go to the country best able to produce efficient, cost-effective conductors? Better off than you might imagine, for if my hunch about human knowledge, something acquired in the most unlikely of places—a class on Plato’s Republic or Homer’s Odyssey, Wordsworth’s poetry or Hawthorne’s short stories—is even half true, we will need humanists aplenty in the next decades. Not because they can explain how it is that an author’s name should be surrounded by qualifying quotation marks (as if social constructions entirely created them, rather than the other way around) or because they can see the invisible hand of hegemonic forces where none exist; but because they will have a better sense of irony and incongruity, paradox and ambivalence, than most. Moreover, they are likely to know something of the delicate equation between the fullest use of private time and the obligations of the public person. The marketplace will find proper uses for such talents, but even more important, quick studies in the human condition will discover that a college education has prepared them for wider educations.
In this sense, one might argue that the real cutting edge is wherever one happens to be—whether at a local school board meeting discussing which books should, or should not, be on the shelves of a junior high school library; supporting a local theater company; or simply deciding which magazines warrant a subscription. Seen this way, the humanities is nothing more nor less than a continuing curiosity about what makes people tick, as viewed against the record of human interaction called History. New vocabularies may—just may—increase our understanding; they will certainly provide more models for our ongoing efforts at modeling. But whether the subject is the claims of Self as pitted against the requirements of Society, the folly of vaulting ambition, or the tensions that set sons against fathers, one generation against another, we have yet to improve on the question Socrates posed so long ago—namely, how should a good person live? Finding the answer is the work of a lifetime, one spent in the pursuit of truth, even as one knows, in the words of poet William Stafford, that “truth has a long and complicated name.”
Those heavy with theory and convinced about the wisdom of their social agendas go through texts with an enviable certainty; but I do not often feel that stories and poems go through them. And when they boast about how intellectually exciting life is on the humanities’ cutting edge, I have my doubts, not only because they have swapped human richness for a mess of pottage, but also because the humanities give us reason to pause rather than occasions to crow.