The desire for universal humanities

What do the humanities have in common? They’re not sciences, but to leave it at this wouldn’t explain how there could be orders of priority among them or why they don’t include every discipline that isn’t a science.

The term could have a definite meaning for those who see it as handing over a culture and ancestral inheritance, and it’s hard to see what it would mean for anyone who doesn’t see this as necessary. The contents of the inheritance weren’t chosen randomly, but because they were particularly beautiful, important to know, or conducive to clear thought, but it is still necessary to their constitution that they are ours.  Sciences strive for a universal viewpoint, which allows them to speak to everyone indifferently while, for the same reason, it makes them unrooted from anything that is our own.

Or at least anything that is our own until now. The objection to the humanities seems to be precisely against their lack of universality: they are only Western and therefore leave off the insights of the rest of the world. We rebel against the parochial character of the humanities and desire diversity instead. Diversity as a curriculum is thus a proposed replacement for the humanities.  It’s too new to have any classic texts, at the moment it has only aspirations to a world culture which it strives to attain by insisting on the equality of all cultures and the attempt to make institutions of learning into societies that anticipate this final world culture.

The goal – whether sought consciously or not – is a sort of universal humanities, which would have texts and traditions in which anyone in the world can feel the same stirring in the soul and sense of identification that Westerners could once feel in reading The Iliad or which Muslims feel in making the Hajj. This universal humanities would allow us a context in which the sciences could be meaningful and valued as opposed to being mere curiosities or tools of power, which, for the moment, is all they are. Scientists at the moment can’t see any of their discoveries as advancing the glory of anything, or as moments in a venerable tradition. A universal humanities – diversity – will provide precisely this context, or so is the hope.

There’s nothing odd in this desire for universality and its concomitant rejection of parochialism: Alexander wanted the whole world to be Hellenic; Catholicism wanted a universal Christendom; Rome wanted all the world under Caesar; Communism wanted to unify all the proletariat, etc. The very idea of “the West” that the humanities used to draw from was an attempt at universality, though the curriculum of diversity now critiques this as not universal enough.

Like all attempts at new cultures diversity requires a new man – and by new I mean even biologically new. At present we have no real facility at the sort of universalism that diversity requires: what is our own is still too racial, religious, ethic, localized, and familial for those who want diversity to inform what is our own; and as far as anyone can tell, our desire for cozy parochialism is as biological as eye color. Diversity must dissolve all this, and from the perspective of those of us who define ourselves by it, this is horrible. In fact, it is the end of the world.

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