Rediscovering the Renaissance

Suzanne Fields
Posted: Mar 20, 2006 12:05 AM

This is not a great century for the humanities. The great works that once were essential to define the educated man are barely tolerated in our great universities. By one estimate, only 4 percent of the Bachelor of Arts degrees are awarded to English majors, and only 2 percent to scholars of history. Nearly a quarter of all bachelor's degrees are awarded to majors in business and business-related fields.
There are several reasons why. A college education is expensive, and student loans are burdensome. Students, and particularly the parents who flirt with bankruptcy to send their kids to college, want degrees in subjects that lead to something practical. Practical means making money. So young people prefer engineering, science, medicine, law and business. Arts and letters get short shrift.
The humanities faculties, furthermore, are usually riddled with political correctness, with courses taught by priggish tenured professors who are determined to persuade their students to think left rather than to think critically. This was the concern of Lawrence Summers, who was deposed as president of Harvard for trying to impart actual learning into the humanities as taught on the Charles. "At a time when the median age of our tenured professoriate is approaching 60, the renewal of the faculty has to be a central concern," he said in his letter of resignation, implying that the Faculty of Arts and Sciences had grown smug, stuffy, stodgy and self-satisfied.

Harvard is typical. David Horowitz describes in his new book, "The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America," how the problem has become pandemic on campus. "In the university in the social sciences and humanities there is no bottom line for bad ideas," he says. "In the real world a Marxist would be regarded as flat-earthist, yet in the university they occupy positions as professors of history, political science and even (at the University of Massachusetts) economists."

Others at Harvard nevertheless deserve credit for working beneath the academic radar to revive interest in the humanities. Harvard Press publishes a series of important texts from the Italian Renaissance, edited for a broad readership among a new generation of readers, presenting largely forgotten literature that is essential for understanding how and why the humanities were once recognized as crucial to the development of the educated man. These works take their theme from Pier Paolo Vergerio, an Italian Renaissance humanist, whose work six centuries ago defined liberal arts studies.

"We call those studies liberal, then," he wrote, "which are worthy of a free [liber] man: they are those through which virtue and wisdom are either practiced or sought and by which the body or mind is disposed towards all the best things."

The Harvard series, published under the imprimatur I Tatti Renaissance Library, is named after the villa near Florence that the art critic Bernard Berenson bequeathed to Harvard. The university press has already published 20 volumes. Adam Kirsch, who describes some of the works in Harvard magazine, tells how these works nourished the writers who flourished in the time of Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli and Fra Angelico, Renaissance artists who continue to draw huge crowds to our art museums. 

What's astonishing in these revived texts is how they testify to the changes in attitudes toward what we should learn. The humanist writers saw the study of art and literature as necessary for teaching virtue and building character. In that sense they were "useful," essential to the critical thinking that produces the wisdom for the whole of society.

They remind the reader of how precious a book can be, an appreciation that is swiftly evaporating in the age of the Internet. Printing books was once a labor of love, literally. Cosimo de' Medici, the rich ruler of Florence, hired 45 scribes who completed 200 volumes in 22 months. "Gold, silver, gems, fine raiment, a marble palace . . . such things as these give one nothing more than a mute and superficial pleasure," wrote Petrarch. "Books delight us through and through, they converse with us, they give us good advice; they become living and lively companions to us."

Petrarch might have been writing about politically correct professors when he observed that the more educated men become, the more aggressively perverse they become. It was more important to Petrarch to be a man of character than a learned man. "If You [cq] choose to grant me nothing else," he prays, "let it at least be my portion to be a good man. . . . If learning alone is granted us, it puffs up and ruins and does not edify."

If the scholars don't want to learn from these authentic masters, now those of us who live outside the walls of academe can.