Joseph Reisert’s column about the humanities (“A world without humanities,” May 30) raises two big questions and then proposes a solution that sounds reasonable and practical, but it is neither.

First, he surveys the sciences and the humanities, and he mentions the notion of progress. He cites steady progress in natural science; in social science, occasional examples are “representative government and market economies.” He leaves out the humanities, but he might as well say that for all our technical progress, human nature has remained pretty much the same.

The second issue haunts Reisert’s remarks on campuses, where his “humanists” talk mainly to each other and their students, with no practical result beyond developing “critical and communications skills.” He rightly says those skills are important in the natural and social sciences, too, but again he leaves the humanities at the margin, dismissing them as not “instrumental,” or useful.

The background issue here is the turmoil in humanities studies, a conflict that since the 1960s has challenged the notion of “a broadly shared literary and artistic culture,” sometimes dismissed as “the canon.” Until higher education became a costly credential, and the humanities a luxury, discovering classic authors and artists meant discovering yourself as well.

One of my teachers would ask now and then, “Are you a better person for having read this?” And he meant it.

The traditional liberal-arts notion that classics exist, that they have lasting value, and that knowing them can make you a better person, is fading from our colleges and universities. Reisert proposes restoring “a few common works” to everyone’s curriculum, but there’s no agreement any more on what’s common, and fueling the fight over anyone’s “canon” will never restore a humane perspective to living and learning on campus today.

Charles Ferguson, East Vassalboro

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