The Survival Camp of the Humanities

It is so much fun to study the humanities. It is so great to get to know one foreign language after another, laugh at the bizarre syntax of ancient Greek and comical contemporary phraseology . It is amazing to realize that, on the one hand, one thing can be described and perceived from so many angles, on the other hand, distant perspectives can come together and form an analogy or develop a symbiotic unison even if it’s the last thing you expected. The humanities also means heated debates and interesting conversations before and after philosophy seminars, poetry nights, small yet vibrant associations founded by passionate individuals.

It’s all very good. Nevertheless, even without delving deeper, one can find a crack in an otherwise idyllic existence of students who have chosen to pursue the humanities. These students tend to be the quickest to abandon their religious beliefs. Of course, this state of things can be explained by a variety of factors and each story is ultimately different, but one of the reasons behind this pattern is, in my opinion, the following: the humanities constitute an ideological survival camp, at times brutal.

Why so? Let’s compare. It seems that their peers who study the sciences have it better: their studies are largely based upon things material and concrete. They do not probe the nature of belief and ideology and they are not as free to look into multiple interpretations of their subject matter. The sphere of the sacred seems to be hanging somewhere above the academic operation on scientific matter, even though the sacred binds the entire world together. Anyway, I really think that science-oriented students have it better. In a way, they can close the door to their laboratory and, their mind at peace, they can head for a retreat at the student chapel while their humanities-oriented counterparts can hardly count on a peaceful day at the lecture hall.

The humanities, although enriching in uncountable ways, introduce a fair dose of unrest into one’s heart while the mind is regularly hit by a tornado of challenging terms and subjective perspectives. Undoubtedly, some unrest that comes with leaving one’s comfort zone can provide opportunities for growth. But not all unrest is equal. Over the most recent decades, the humanities have developed a special predilection for deconstruction of institutions and cultural references, laying bare the mechanisms behind collective storytelling or collective memory. In our humanities classrooms we are told time and again that as much as these mechanisms serve the production of culture, social standards, and mental paradigms, they also served previously to construct religious systems and there’s no more to those systems than that. This mechanical process of disintegration affects the sacred; it becomes stripped of its mystery and projected against imperfect religious institutions or, worse still,  reduced to seemingly arbitrary set of “thou shalt nots” that, apparently, we need to eliminate in order to be free. Such a perception of the world presents God as a construct rather than someone who is given to us and who gives everything. And if God is a construct, one can live without Him. The sphere of the sacred, reduced to the level of a-moral man, turns into an anti-redeeming reality: such a sacred sphere, no longer sacred, becomes trivial and entirely dependent on secular terminology. One cruel example: a professor at the University of Montreal talked about Bernini’s sculpture of Saint Therese and referred to her visions as “hallucinations”.  This met with some resistance from one Christian student: gently, but firmly, she corrected the professor by saying, “those were not hallucinations but mystical visions.” I admired her simple courage.

This being so, it is not surprising that the relationship of faith-filled humanities students with their lecturers is sometimes tense, given that the undermining of tradition, canons and ethical codes has become a true hobby of some high-rank humanities professors. They just love it when their students lose ground and abandon their points of reference. They delve deep until all certainty falls apart like a house of cards or is watered down to a mantra of naïve good intentions. Afterwards, having reduced a young adult to a kindergartener, the scholars can magnanimously act as academic mentors or simply leave the student hanging in thin air, tortured by a myriad of questions that either remain unanswered or – and this is common – are asked rhetorically, not awaiting any response, because conceptual openness is more appreciated in the humanities. This approach is counterproductive in cases where questions beg real and possible solutions. Yet, contemporary humanities do not like the monolithic institution and unequivocal solutions to problems. Even when it comes to the actual canon of books required of every students. The humanities have largely abandoned the traditional canon of literature and now declare that each one of us can have our own canon, provided that it can be presented convincingly, preferably seasoned with some kind of minority narrative, a “novel voice” rising in spite of the “monolith”.

The contemporary lover of language and literature tends to choose to focus on all things frontier, unusual, subversive and controversial, often opting for something that escapes aesthetic judgment. If such an approach permits the humanist to develop the skill of listening to the human soul and his/her story, that’s of some value, because literature is about telling stories. On the contrary, when it becomes an excuse to wage war against literature as always unjust and inadequate, or a tool to question all things of proven value in the name of short-term activism, it quickly yields academic resentment and cheap criticism, in other words, it degrades instead of edifying.

The above obsession with my personal take on literature as opposed to reading the classics in hope of discovering something valuable finds its parallel in the academic portrayal of religion as something passé and oppressive to individuality. Those pursuing the humanities often hear that the old faith-oriented order has (already) been successfully deconstructed and it’s now time to search for new open paradigms. This is yet another challenge of the survival camp. Many lecturers will claim that Christians represent an old, irrelevant order or one that is gone entirely and there’s no more to talk about. It is a tough confrontation. Suddenly, the students find out that their living God ought to be delegated to a museum of human concepts.

I have described a few aspects of the conflict experienced in literature seminars. The space beyond the classroom, a student’s social life, is yet another realm. This space is difficult to navigate, too, because a considerable proportion of humanists lean towards secular ideologies of the left-of-center which differ significantly from Christian ethics. Not only that, there’s that wonderful assumption that all humanists must adhere to that left-of-center viewpoint or else… they are not “objective” or “open” enough.

The humanist, if graced with strong faith, will manage to survive the camp in spite of all the hurdles and questioning. Hopefully, thanks to being anchored in the faith, such a student will go beyond the limits and fragmentations of the contemporary liberal arts, learn from great masters (anyway), develop fine reading and writing skills, and his/her life and works will resound with faith, hope and love, of which love is the greatest. Including the love for those fellow literature students who have abandoned the faith under pressure. Oh, how sorely they are missed!

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