Humanities can only be saved through separation from ‘the digital order,’ argues columnist

Ross Douthat, columnist for the New York Times, recently penned an op-ed honing in on a key component in the decline of quality humanities education: technology addiction.

'The humanities need to be proudly reactionary in some way, to push consciously against the digital order...'

On Mar. 8 Ross Douthat, conservative columnist for the New York Times, penned an op-ed honing in on what he views as a key component in the decline of quality humanities education: our collective addiction to technology.

This addiction, according to Douthat, incentivizes perpetual distraction, robbing us of the necessary attention, and stillness, required to truly engage with the perennial questions traditionally addressed by the humanities.

Douthat begins by noting that, though he recently read a portion of Nathan Heller’s piece “The End of the English Major” in The New Yorker, he did not read the entire thing–a symptom of the very inattention causing the humanities’ decline.

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“What I did not do was click through and read the whole Heller piece … Even more conspicuously, I definitely did not go pick up a copy of ‘The Scarlet Letter’ or any other 19th-century novel and begin reading it for pleasure,” Douthat muses.

In response to this irony, Douthat quotes a famous passage from English writer G.K. Chesterton, who once wrote in response to the question “What’s wrong?” that “the answer is, or should be, ‘I am wrong.’”

“The Harvard undergraduates who can’t parse a complex sentence from the American Renaissance are part of the problem. But so is the Harvard-educated newspaper columnist and self-styled cultural conservative who regularly unburdens himself of deep thoughts on pop TV but hasn’t read a complete 19th‌-century novel for his own private enjoyment in — well, let’s just say it’s been a while,” reflects Douthat.

He then bemoans the fact that, critical as he is of the inability of college-aged students to follow complex works of literature, he himself is “too attached to the distracting present to enter fully the complex language of the past.”

Douthat's cure for this perpetual distraction plaguing all Americans, and for a revival of the humanities? Intentional separation from, and critique of, “the digital order."

“[T]he humanities need to be proudly reactionary in some way, to push consciously against the digital order in some fashion, to self-consciously separate and make a virtue of that separation,” he writes.

Douthat continues by arguing that a revival of the humanities “would mean banishing every token of the digital age from classrooms and libraries, shutting out the internet, offering your work much more as an initiation into mysteries, a plunge into the very depths.”

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Douthat is not alone in his critique of endless distraction and its impact on education. Philosophers and religious sages have prescribed undistracted attentiveness for the attainment of wisdom and virtue for thousands of years.

“Stillness is the standard of activity,” wrote Laozi, Chinese philosopher and founder of Taoism.

“Be still, and know that I am God,” wrote the Psalmist.

Whether the humanities, or American society at large, can embrace this Herculean task of separation and quietude, remains an open question.

Best efforts were made to contact Ross Douthat for comment.