Saving Liberal Democracy: How the humanities can help humanity

Liberal democracy is in trouble. But the liberal arts — the humanities — can help save it, according to novelist and essayist Charlie Foran. He argues the humanities strengthen the defining dynamics of a vibrant democracy.

'The humanities never bet against people,' argues writer and lecturer Charlie Foran

Liberal democracy is in trouble. But the liberal arts — the humanities — can save it, according to novelist and essayist Charlie Foran. He argues strengthening the humanities also nurtures the dynamics that define a vibrant democracy. (© James Lahey )

*Originally published on April 29, 2021.

We've heard a lot about the apparent decline of liberal democracy, both as an ideal and as political reality. But far less about its relationship to the decline of the humanities — literature, philosophy, history — within the university. 

The humanities nurture the foundations of a healthy liberal democracy. Or at least, that should be their role, according to novelist, essayist and executive director of the Writers' Trust of Canada, Charlie Foran.

The correlation between the state of liberal democracy and that of the liberal arts forms the heart of the inaugural Humanities at Large Lecture, established by the Jackman Humanities Institute, and which Foran recently delivered. You can read the full text of his talk, Surrendering Our Senses, here.

"The last decade or so has been rough on the humanities," he acknowledges. "Enrollment in literature and history courses at American universities has dropped by as much as 25 per cent. Other subjects have lost similar-sized appeal in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere."

But, as Foran argues, the weakened state of both the humanities and liberal democracy isn't without agency. It was made to happen.

"If we believed more ardently in liberal democracy, we might not question the primacy of the humanities in our schools. If we appreciated the humanities more, we might not be so ready to denounce and dismiss liberal democracy." 

Still, Foran remains convinced that the humanities undergird liberal democracy.

"The humanities are foremost the study of the human animal in the world, and liberal democracy is the best set of governing principles yet evolved to protect and encourage the self, via rights and freedoms and adherence to the rule of law." 

Humanities vs. Liberal Democracy

Of course, the humanities, like liberal democracy, have at times been dramatically compromised — a point made by two younger scholars affiliated with the Jackman Institute, who joined in the discussion with Foran after his lecture finished.

Melissa Gismondi, a Canadian writer and broadcaster who holds a Ph.D. in American history, points to a concrete example of how the humanities can actually undermine the values of liberal democracy.

Melissa Gismondi is the 2020-2021 Public Humanities & New Media Fellow at the Jackman Humanities Institute at the University of Toronto. (Katherine Holland)

"Historians after the American Civil War played a role with their scholarship of promoting a perception of the South that we today understand is the 'Lost Cause,'" Gismondi explains.

"William Dunning was a history professor at Columbia [University], and he taught this narrative of Reconstruction that is right out of Birth of a Nation in terms of giving recently freed people the vote, but the freed men [according to Dunning] abused it. They threatened white womanhood. You can see this in some of the first historians of slavery... they interpreted slavery as a mutual exchange." 

Jennifer Ross holds a Ph.D. in American literature and has made the so-called 'war on terror' an object of her study. She also tempered the championing of the humanities with a sober look at its track record.

"Western political systems brought us, among other things, the global 'war on terror', right? And this cost an untold number of lives and continues in this kind of perpetuity," Ross argues.

"So when it comes to the humanities, to philosophy and literature and political science, I think we need to think a little bit more about what humans are we engaging with, and do we consider them to be fully human?"

A personal connection

Yet all three participants agree that potential for the humanities to strengthen and nurture liberal democracy remains intact.

Foran asserts that "the humanities never bet against people." Likewise, he says, "liberal democracy, if it's healthy, never legislates against people in favour of, say, machines," even as he acknowledges that it's a big "if" — given the anti-democratic data mining and selling by Big Tech worldwide.

The theoretical, somewhat abstract connection between the humanities and liberal democracy, as the panellists conclude, can be intensely personal.

Melissa Gismondi experienced a touchstone moment that confirmed for her the potential of the humanities to buttress the dynamics of liberal democracy. It happened in 2017 when she was at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, when the far-right protest against the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue occurred.

The Ku Klux Klan protested the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, in Charlottesville, VA, on July 8, 2017. They were calling for the protection of Confederate monuments. (Chet Strange/Getty Images)

Inside the classrooms were lectures and group discussions about the origins and purpose behind the mounting of Confederate statues. Despite taking place under a pervasive atmosphere of violence, the sessions powerfully connected past to present.

Jennifer Ross holds a Ph.D. in American literature. (Submitted by Jennifer Ross)

"I don't know if it's too sappy to say that I was kind of proud of the humanities for creating this space where people were learning that these statues were from the 1920s, in a period of Jim Crow," says Gismondi. The classroom was connected viscerally to society and to history.

For Jennifer Ross, her touchstone moment occurred while reading Omar El Akkad's novel, American War, which for her "was able to cut right to the heart of human suffering and to show what we really share in our suffering." 

The novel imagines a second American Civil War, and resonated with her study of the American-led 'war on terror'. The novel allowed her to see "the ways that humanity can think across time and borders" — not just to criticize but to show "similarity, to show empathy, to point a way forward, through the darkness."

Guests in this episode:

Charlie Foran is the executive director of the Writers Trust of Canada.

Melissa Gismondi is a writer and broadcaster.

Jennifer Ross is a Digital Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow at the Jackman Humanities Institute.

* This episode was produced by Greg Kelly.

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