alpert2_Gustavo ValienteEuropa Press via Getty Images_university Gustavo Valiente/Europa Press via Getty Images

Reviving Hope for the Humanities

Too many teachers nowadays avoid engaging in serious conversations about living well, even though such insights are what most people look for in the humanities. Worse, in the absence of thoughtful guidance, people will increasingly seek meaning elsewhere, and not always in healthy or fruitful ways.

HAMBURG – At a recent conference of German and American literary scholars, I suggested that our high-level discussions would matter only if we helped change students’ lives. It is not enough to tell students how the skills developed in reading literature can “transfer” to other parts of their lives. Rather, we must help them become better interpreters of each other, so that they can become better friends, family members, and citizens.

I had anticipated that this argument would meet with skepticism or insistence that studying great works of literature is important for its own sake. To my surprise, the response went much further than that, and even included an accusation that I was condoning “tyranny.” The idea that we might teach people how to live well, I was told, wrongly assumes that we ourselves know how to live well, and that we are right to impose our views on others.

There is some logic to this concern. After all, far-right politicians in many countries are currently trying to impose their values on students by banning certain subjects and books. But I was not advocating for university instructors to tell people how to live. My point was simply that we should help our students connect the classroom to their daily lives through meaningful reflection. The heated response I received speaks volumes about how some humanists have abdicated their historic role: to help people find meaning.

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