In “The university: still dead” (Spiked May 2012), a review of Andrew Delbanco’s College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be, Angus Kennedy offers
The humanities have not responded well to the challenge of science. Literature, for example, has moved from dressing itself up in the scientific rigour of linguistics to the postmodern rejection of truth and the relativisation of all values through to the contemporary fad for passing off computer-run word pattern searches against digital texts as amounting to ‘readings’ of books. Science itself suffers from increasing ‘scientism’, where facts are held as truths and research studies are set up as instruction manuals in how to live.
Despite the growing influence of neuroscientific explanations of every aspect of our lives, we do need to remember that science has precisely nothing to tell us about values, about love, about the meaning of a life, of death. It has nothing to do with meaning at all in fact. As Camus puts it in The Myth of Sisyphus, whether the Sun goes around the Earth, or the other way, is a matter of profound irrelevance to the meaning of life. If it did so determine meaning then we would not be free. There is no ought from is.
Yet, despite the willingness of many to dismiss freedom as ‘so-called’ free will, there remains, as Delbanco notes, a questioning spirit, especially in the young. This spirit still seeks existential answers and ‘even as the humanities become marginal in our colleges, they are establishing themselves in medical, law, and business schools’. Encouraging as that may be, the decline of the liberal-arts model, of collegiate spirit, of universalism, within American education remains as real as it was when Allan Bloom identified it in The Closing of the American Mind. Now, it is just that much more developed, obvious and demanding of solutions.
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