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Reflections on Harvey Mansfield’s “Science and the Humanities in America’s Universities,” a Lecture at the University of Montana, President’s Lecture Series, 1 May 2015

Prior to sending invitations for the President’s Lecture Series, I do background checks on prospective speakers. As the coordinator of the series, I want to know about the quality of a speaker’s ideas and capacity to address a town-gown audience. The most interesting discovery that turned up about Harvey Mansfield during my background check of him I found in an interview that he gave to The Harvard Crimson a few years ago. This avowed conservative declared to the interviewer that had he been associated with a conservative university instead of progressive Harvard, he probably would have become a man of the left. I interpreted this declaration as a vital intellectual life sign for Professor Mansfield.

By nature, he qualifies for membership in the category of thinkers characterized by George Orwell as the “Awkward Squad”—the men and women ever inclined to go against the grain of conventional wisdom in their time and place. It seemed to me that during his visit to UM, Professor Mansfield furnished us with many instances of his awkwardness, in the sense intended by Orwell.

First, the lecture itself was a classic intellectual tour de force, of the kind we do not hear very often anymore. In an age of the teacher as an egalitarian guide on the side, he is proudly and militantly a commanding sage on the stage. If the teacher is merely a guide with no real claim to stand before the students as the unrivaled expert in the room on the subject matter at hand, then the students are paying tuition money under false pretenses. Maybe the teacher should be paying the students.

My highly esteemed colleague and authority on China, Steve Levine, prepared me for Professor Mansfield’s lecture style. Steve as a graduate student at Harvard took a Political Philosophy course from him in the 1960s. I don’t think that I am betraying any confidences when I say that Steve politically is a man of broadly progressive views and, conceivably was even farther on the left during his graduate school days. Yet he speaks of arch-conservative Professor Mansfield as one of the supremely gifted teachers he has known. His course, Steve says, was “one of the most intellectually stimulating experiences of my life.”

Steve had learned an important lesson as a very young man, a lot sooner in his life’s trajectory than I did in mine: a good lecture is not one with which we necessarily agree, but one that stimulates us to further thought about vital questions. The left can learn from the right, and vice-versa.

Max Weber puts the point very well in his Essays on Sociology: we need to learn at some point in our lives, better sooner than later, to take “inconvenient facts” seriously into account, i.e., facts that are inconvenient for our politics and ideological bent. Weber thought that the individuals capable of this kind of rarefied teaching were the truly great teachers and the real glory of their academic institutions.

I concluded from Steve’s message to me that I should pay very close attention to Professor Mansfield’s UM lecture. It would be densely packed with erudition, intricately arranged, and, as always with him, controversial.

Professor Mansfield spoke about the strengths and weaknesses of the sciences and the humanities, what they can and cannot give us. He seemed to me to be offering very different answers to questions raised by the scientist E. O. Wilson in his 1998 book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Unlike Wilson, he does not want to unite the sciences and humanities. He recognizes them as distinct magisteria, each with its own field of knowledge and methods of learning. Social science he described as constituting a third sphere with scientific and humanistic components.

At a time when the University of Montana, in keeping with universities all over the country—indeed, all over the world—are wrestling with foundational questions about the authentic curricular needs of students, Professor Mansfield celebrated the enduring value of humanistic learning.

Since the Italian Renaissance, humanistic learning has consisted of science and the humanities. They both belong as separate but equal spheres in the education of every university student, for the reasons pointed out by Professor Mansfield: science possesses a power and a utility of unmistakable importance today, but the humanities in their own unique ways raise questions about wisdom, without which the scientific dystopias imagined by Jonathan Swift and Aldous Huxley may become reality.

The case of Galileo Galilei, the greatest scientist of the seventeenth century, illustrates the point of Professor Mansfield’s lecture. In his first professional position, the humanist-trained Galileo taught art. His education had included art and drawing, as well as courses in physics and mathematics, the fields in which he would make his professional mark and achieve immortality. He also was an accomplished lutenist and the master literary stylist of his generation. Italian school children still read his books and letters, in order to learn how to write a muscular Tuscan prose. Literature, too, was part of Galileo’s education.

Professor Mansfield did lay down one rule for which Galileo might be considered a genius-caliber exception. In his lecture, he said that science needs the humanities, in order to make itself understandable to the public. He talked about the need of rhetoric—speech and writing—for the promotion of science, as if scientists could not manage these activities on their own.

In fact, Galileo had no need of borrowed eloquence from anybody. He possessed an unrivaled eloquence, which he had acquired in the course of his humanistic education. Galileo was l’uomo universal, the universal man.

Should the universal man continue to be the ideal of the university? That is a question underlying the pedagogical debates today in higher education. Professor Mansfield did not directly address those debates in his lecture, but he gave us to understand that the humanities and the sciences retain unique power and potential. Each also has its problems and limitations.

I deduced from his lecture that without a firm and efficacious commitment to the humanist ideals of an intellectually balanced education, the university will lose its way in a wilderness of commercialism and be taken over by marketers and educational faddists. The end result will be the enslavement of the university to the demands of consumer culture and public opinion. The university then would cease to exist as a critical institution and function only as a support system for the political and economic status quo. What a fate for humanity.

The humanists, with their Galileo-like passion for science and the humanities, at their best envisaged the university as an institution that should be devoted to the pursuit of intellectual excellence. Every other activity at the university had to be subordinated to that one supreme end, to which both science and the humanities would make irreplaceable contributions. The beauty and strength of Professor Mansfield’s lecture consisted of his splendid effort in reminding us what those irreplaceable contributions are.

Richard Drake
2 May 2015

Published inNotebook

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