Andersen: Another Goethe festival needed
A downturn in the humanities is not big news unless you’re schooled in Aspen history. Then it becomes a fascinating subject. The New York Times reported on it last week, so it’s at least worthy of our attention.
The Times stated that the Great Recession “has helped turn college into largely a tool for job preparation.” Given Aspen’s storied history in reviving the humanities, is it any wonder that Aspen should be concerned?
It was a little more than 60 years ago that the “Athens of the West” helped resuscitate the humanities by breathing life into culture. That’s when the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies was formed to make people think, question and challenge the precepts of modern technological life.
Now that many colleges have regressed to the plebeian utility of training for job skills, what is to become of American culture? Who is to hold high the banners of philosophy, literature, the fine arts?
In Aspen the banner carriers were Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke. They recognized after World War II that the materialists were winning over the nation’s leaders. They and an intellectual clique at the University of Chicago warned that bottom-line myopia was pandemic in America.
Their friend the chancellor, Robert Hutchins, was quick to act. He had years earlier disbanded the football team as a nod to academic virtues triumphing over the vainglory of competitive sports. Hutchins was known for saying, “I get my exercise being pallbearer for my athletic friends.”
Hutchins helped launch the Great Books of Western Civilization as an antidote to the corporate profit motive that was driving American institutions with a self-absorbed, capitalistic mission. His closest associate, Mortimer Adler, became the uncompromising Great Books editor and originator of the Aspen Executive Seminar, both of which celebrated the virtues of humanism.
These anointed men realized that if America was to take an enlightened role in the Nuclear Age and help the world survive the Cold War, ethics and morality must take precedence over acquisitiveness. The humanities were needed to stem the tide of professional specialization and awaken future generations to the Platonic triad of the good, the true, the beautiful.
Now The New York Times reports that Harvard has had a 20 percent drop in humanities students in the past 10 years. “The intellectual firepower in the universities is in the sciences. … The important issues that people of all sorts care about … are not being addressed in the English departments.”
The humanities are dying on the vine because they are deemed antiquated and impractical. It’s time for another Goethe Convocation to bring back meaning to thought. The virtual world has blinded us with sparkling falsities, giving credence to things called tweets.
If only Hutchins were here now, he would set priorities straight. A man whose Puritan background made it unthinkable to discuss one’s private affairs in public would abolish vulgar social media with a sweep of his puritanical arm. “Celebrity,” related his biographer Harry Ashmore, “had become the product of a cult of personality, no longer a mark of accomplishment but an end to itself.”
Now that humanities majors are half of what they were in 1970, the crisis is full upon us. Aspen should invoke Hutchins in the same way Goethe was invoked here in 1949 and honor “the Great Conversation,” as Hutchins called the art of inquiry and the rule of informed, civil dialogue.
To do so, Aspen would have to take on the revolution Hutchins waged: “At the root of the present troubles of the world,” he pronounced in the early ’60s, “we must find a pervasive materialism, a devastating desire for material goods, which sweeps everything before it, up to, and perhaps over, the verge of the abyss.”
Is Aspen up to the task? Or has this town sold its soul to materialism? Admittedly, the values espoused during the Goethe Convocation are faint echoes; the humanities are dying again in America.
Perhaps the prevailing material/celebrity culture already has passed over the abyss and now finds itself deep in the burial vault where lies the whole person — body, mind and spirit — awaiting another revival in Aspen.