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Home > Document Library > Afterword: Liberals and Conservatives Abandon the Principles of the Founding > Speaking for the Humanities

Speaking for the Humanities

American Council of Learned Societies

[Six prominent humanities professors attack the idea that there are objective standards of just government. — TGW]


[In 1989 the American Council of Learned Societies issued a report on the humanities in American higher education, called "Speaking for the Humanities." It was authored by George Levine and five other prominent scholars at prestige universities.]

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of modern thought, even for many humanities professors and certainly for society at large, is its challenge to the …ideal of objectivity and disinterest. For that ideal is at the root of modern Western thought, it has been essential to the development of science, the West’s most distinctive intellectual contribution to world culture. Many of those who attack the humanities disciplines mistakenly believe that ideal also to be at the heart of the principles that underlie democracy—the belief that members of society can act against their own self-interest, recognizing a larger social good….

[T]he belief that all thought inevitably derives from particular standpoints, perspectives, and interests would seem to subvert the moral order…. [Yet] the consensus of most of the dominant theories [of today] is that all thought does, indeed, develop from particular standpoints, perspectives, interests…. A system of thought [must be] alert to the way interests generate thought and ideological assumptions govern the most self-evident truth….

We [in America] may wish to argue that a commitment to democracy is not ideological but a recognition of a universal truth, disinterestedly achieved, and unavailable to other more partisan cultures. This, ironically, makes the non-authoritarian democratic system entirely dependent on an asserted authority. We ought to be—and we are—able to defend our ideological commitments without recourse to such arguments….

We should not equate truth with our own political ideology….

[A]ll stances in scholarly research, as in the choice of values, imply a prior commitment to some basic belief system…. At its best, contemporary humanistic thinking does not peddle ideology, but rather attempts to sensitize us to the presence of ideology in our work, and to its capacity to delude us into promoting as universal values that in fact belong to one nation, one social class, one sect.

[From Chronicle of Higher Education, January 11, 1989, A14. ]


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