Defining the Humanities: How Rediscovering a Tradition Can Improve Our Schools, With a Curriculum for Today’s Students, by Robert E. Proctor. Second Edition. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998. 264 pp. $35 cloth. $15.95 paper.
“For one man writing is the beginning of insanity,” wrote Petrarch, “for another, the way out of it.” The recent spate of books on educational reform can be divided into either of these categories according to one’s values. Although there is consensus among them that the ivory tower is under siege by a variety of intractable enemies of Western civilization—usually liberals, feminists, and multiculturalists—no clear battle plan has emerged. Instead there is name-calling or nostalgia for a mythical time when the academy was an unassailable fortress of unquestioned authority.
Proctor’s calm and carefully argued book has come at the right time. Written in a scholarly rather than polemical style, the book debates the issue of a structured curriculum without resorting to jargon or rancor. Having originally published the book in 1988 as Education’s Great Amnesia: Reconsidering the Humanities from Petrarch to Freud, Proctor changed his diagnosis when he realized that “you can’t forget what you never knew”(ix). Although the humanities were once synonymous with the study of the languages and culture of ancient Greece and Rome, he found that the term now refers to a grab-bag of college courses without any historical connection. Proctor deplores the general notion of the humanities as “a group of disciplines, juxtaposed to other groups, such as the sciences, the social sciences, and the arts, and with no particular connection to Western civilization”(ix). Hence his new title, Defining the Humanities: How Rediscovering a Tradition Can Improve Our Schools, With a Curriculum for Today’s Students.
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