Rereading the Renaissance

Adam Kirsch in Harvard Magazine:

Even today, most members of institutions like Harvard would instinctively endorse, in some form, the proposition advanced six centuries ago by the Italian Renaissance humanist Pier Paolo Vergerio: “We call those studies liberal, then, which are worthy of a free [liber] man: they are those through which virtue and wisdom are either practiced or sought, and by which the body or mind is disposed towards all the best things.” But today, every part of Vergerio’s confident creed is coming under increased attack. For one thing, “liberal studies” can appear less useful, to the student and to society as a whole, than concrete scientific and technical knowledge. Better to emerge from college as a budding biologist or financier, our practical-minded culture incessantly tells us, than as a mere reader of books. Meanwhile, the humanities themselves have become infinitely more self-critical in recent decades, so that “virtue” and “wisdom,” unproblematic terms for Vergerio, are now contested battlegrounds. Reading canonical texts, many people now believe, is not the road to freedom, but a subtle kind of indoctrination.

More here.