Eric Adler looks at past and present in the ongoing battle of the Classics.

“If there is a crisis in the humanities,” argued the American professors of English literature Paul Jay and Gerald Graff in an opinion piece from 2012, “it stems less from their inherent lack of practical utility, which too often prevents us from taking advantage of the vocational opportunities presented to us.” “In fact,” they concluded, “we would argue there is no defense of the humanities that is not ultimately based on the skills it teaches.”

Jay and Graff are but two of many recent apologists for the modern humanistic disciplines whose arguments center on the humanities as providers of occupationally desirable aptitudes. Indeed, in 2016 a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education detected such widespread enthusiasm for instrumental defenses of the humanities that he announced, “skills are the new canon.” He wrote, “Today just about everyone—administrators, students, parents, employers, policy makers, and most professors—has accepted the notion that broad, transferrable skills are the desired product of college.”

What skills do recent defenders of the humanities highlight? By far the most popular answer to that question is critical thinking. Numerous contemporary apologists for humanistic study ground their arguments on this mystical (and often poorly defined) phrase. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum, for example, stressed that schools today require the humanities in order to “promote critical thinking, the skills and courage it requires to raise a dissenting voice.”

Is this the best way to plump for the value of the modern humanities? Despite the good intentions of skills-promoters such as Jay, Graff, and Nussbaum, there remains ample cause for doubt. After all, to convince skeptics that humanistic disciplines must be retained in secondary and tertiary education, it seems crucial to demonstrate that the humanities provide something that other disciplines do not. Yet it is far from certain that “critical thinking” (whatever that means) is the sole domain of the contemporary humanities. Can one earnestly contend that students don’t learn how to “think critically” by studying, say, mathematics, sociology, or biology? It seems well-nigh impossible to make the case.

To discover a more convincing rationale for the humanities, my new book, The Battle of the Classics (Oxford University Press, 2020), explores earlier feuds over the nature of higher education that have much to teach humanists today. In the late nineteenth century, the United States witnessed what historians of higher education have long labeled the “Battle of the Classics.” At this time, much intellectual energy was expended on attacks on and defense of the role of the humanities (then commonly conceived as the classical humanities) in American education. The prominent disputes associated with the Battle of the Classics focused on elite campuses, which, in the late nineteenth century and today, receive the most attention from the American press and the American public. Traditionalists in the Battle of the Classics hoped to retain the classical languages (in many cases still synonymous with the “humanities”) as the pedagogical core of higher learning in the United States. Their opponents, often called “modernists,” by contrast, aimed to end curricular prescription and the dominance of Latin and ancient Greek in the American colleges.

By analyzing various debates that dominated the Battle of the Classics in the US, the book reveals the congenital weaknesses of our current instrumental apologetics for the modern humanities. In 1883, for example, the prominent American businessman and amateur historian Charles Francis Adams, Jr., (1835–1915) delivered a fiery address on the campus of Harvard University, in which he excoriated the institution’s continued requirement of ancient Greek as part of its examinations for admission. This requirement, Adams thundered in his controversial and attention-grabbing speech, is a “superstition” that has harmed the lives of Adams and his fellow Harvard graduates.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 1.-charles.jpg

Charles Francis Adams Jr.

The nation’s classicists and their supporters, sensing grave danger for the ancient Greek language in American education, quickly joined the fray, attacking Adams’s oration and presenting various rationales for the classical humanities. Unfortunately, their defenses centered on the instrumental approach still popular today. In fact, traditionalists stressed that ancient Greek must remain a required subject for America’s college-bound students because the language supposedly provides unparalleled “mental discipline.” Proponents of mental discipline theory viewed the mind through the metaphor of a muscle: just as one needs to exercise one’s body in order to grow strong, one must also exercise one’s mind to increase the faculties of the intellect, the will, and the sensibilities. Traditionalistic detractors of Adams’s address maintained that Greek should remain an obligatory feature of the American high school and college curriculum because it purportedly offered the most effective form of mental gymnastics.

It did not take long for the modernists to undermine such claims. As various social scientists who supported Adams’s positions quickly noted, the traditionalists presented scarcely any proof that studying ancient Greek was more intellectually taxing than, say, chemistry or German. To make matters worse, by stressing the cardinal importance of “mental discipline,” the traditionalists in the debate over Adams’s speech had unwittingly made social scientists the arbiters of education’s value. Unlike humanists, after all, social scientists could test empirically which subjects most effectively promoted mental discipline. Thus, for example, when the psychologist E. L. Thorndike (1874–1949) reported on a study he conducted of American high school students in which he demonstrated that those who had studied Latin scarcely gained more “general intelligence” than those who had taken stenography classes, the traditionalistic supporters of the classical languages had no answer.This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 2.-e-l-thorndike.jpg

E.L. Thorndike (1874-1949)

This is of cardinal importance for defenders of the modern humanities to understand because, as the historian David Potts has stressed, “critical thinking” is mental discipline’s “conceptual successor.” Our current apologetics for the modern humanistic disciplines, which routinely genuflect to “critical thinking” and other (often vaguely defined) skills, suffer from the same flaws detectable among the criticisms of Adams’s speech.

Such flaws should be obvious to astute students of the humanistic tradition. Indeed, the Italian humanists who reshaped and reinvigorated the classical humanities in the early Renaissance had revolted against the skills-focused scholasticism then regnant in European higher education. The scholastics had placed paramount value on the techniques associated with syllogistic reasoning; it was in opposition to this spirit that Italian humanists such as Leonardo Bruni (1370–1444) advocated a curriculum based on the masterworks of ancient Greek and Latin literature. To Bruni and his fellow humanists, such masterworks, when encountered in their original languages, could perfect students’ character and style. They thus supported a curriculum of substance—works of great wisdom that can spur on self-improvement. Our skills-based apologetics ring hollow in part because they cut against the grain of the humanities. The Italian humanists, after all, reimagined the studia humanitatis as an antidote to the skills-focused scholasticism of the Middle Ages.

The classical curriculum desirable to the Renaissance humanists rightly seems too narrow to meet the intellectual and moral needs of the present. One may say the same about the so-called Great Books tradition, which sired many required collegiate courses devoted to Western civilization in mid-twentieth-century America. In an age of decolonizing the curriculum, educators understandably balk at curricular approaches that appear insufficiently inclusive.

How, then, can humanists defend a substance-based approach to the modern humanities, while steering clear of the Western triumphalism often associated with the Great Books? A crucial figure in the humanistic tradition who wrote at the tail end of the Battle of the Classics can help point the way forward. Irving Babbitt (1865–1933), a classically trained professor of French and comparative literature at Harvard University, provided the strongest defense of the classical and modern humanities in his era. In opposition to the skills-obsessed apologetics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Babbitt rekindled a genuinely humanistic approach to the study of literature. When properly studied, he maintained, the humanities should enable people to live up to their higher potentialities and thereby lead sounder and happier lives.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 3.-irving.jpg

Irving Babbitt

While underscoring the crucial role of character-formation in education, Babbitt also managed greatly to broaden the humanistic tradition, to allow it to look far beyond its classical and Western origins. He did so by stressing what he called the Platonic problem of the One and the Many. Human beings, he noted, are simultaneously all different and all the same. All human traditions, he posited, have contributed to the wisdom of the ages, a nucleus of universal human experience that could help us to determine salubrious standards for life. A proper approach to the humanities, then, should center around the study of global masterworks. After all, works of deep intellectual, aesthetic, and moral significance are linked to a rich variety of human civilizations, past and present. From such works, we can attempt to detect whether there is a central core of human wisdom—across the ages, from manifold traditions—that can guide us as we grapple with the best ways to live.

Many of the other disciplines in contemporary education concern themselves with improving the material conditions of life; the humanist’s job is the crucial balancing work of humanism. Bereft of the humanities, our schools and universities only accomplish half of what they should. After all, as Babbitt noted over a century ago, we cannot improve the world if we cannot improve ourselves.

Eric Adler is an Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Maryland (USA). His latest book, The Battle of the Classics: How a Nineteenth-Century Debate Can Save the Humanities Today, has recently been published by Oxford University Press.