Lewis Lapham on the humanities in a technological age

This is from Lewis Lapham's preamble in the current issue of Lapham's Quarterly. The theme of the issue is Ways of Learning.

From time to time in the scholarly journals and the
alumni magazines I come across articles that might as well be entitled
“What in God’s Name Are the Humanities, and Why Are They of Any Use to
Us Here in the Bright Blue Technological Wonder of the 21st Century?”
The question suggests that within the circles of informed academic
opinion the authorities construe the humanities as exquisite ornaments,
meant to be preserved, together with the banknotes and the jewels, in
the vaults of the university’s endowment—an acquaintance with the
liberal arts one of those proper appearances that must be kept up,
together with the house in Southampton and the season’s subscription to
the Metropolitan Opera. Apparently content to believe that man’s
machines have vanquished nature, subjugated the tribes of Paleolithic
instinct, and put an end to history, the oracles in residence walk to
and fro among the old trees sold to the alumni as naming opportunities,
speaking of tenure and tables of organization, of Rembrandt’s drawings
and Shakespeare’s plays as pheasants under glass. Their piety recalls
the lines of Archibald MacLeish:

Freedom that was a thing to use
They made a thing to save
And staked it in and fenced it round
Like a dead man’s grave.

To
bury the humanities in the tombs of precious marble is to fail the quiz
on what constitutes a decent American education. Like the sorcerer’s
apprentice, our technologists produce continuously improved means
toward increasingly ill-defined ends; we have acquired a great many new
weapons and information systems, but we don’t know at what or at whom
to point the digital enhancements. Unless the executive sciences look
for advice and consent to the senate of the humanities, we stand a
better than even chance of murdering ourselves with our own toys. Not
to do so is to make a mistake that is both stupid and ahistorical.

Link: Playing with fire.

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