Thoughts of history and literature

German thinkers and German educational institutions were sources of inspiration and influence in academic thinking for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. There was a time when those who sought to be the best educated pursued the German language and learning in German universities. This was especially true in the fields of medicine, psychology, philosophy and theology. Along with the rise of Nazism in the first half of the 20th century, there was a rise in critical academic scholarship. Some of the books that grew out of German universities at the time have become pivotal texts for scholarship well into the 21st Century. Germany was the birthplace of modern psychiatry. Although Sigmund Freud was an Austrian, his education and research were heavily influenced by the German academic system. The Swiss psychiatrist who followed Freud, Carl Jung also was deeply influenced by that same system. Both contributed heavily not only to the field of psychiatry, but also to anthropology, archaeology, literature, philosophy and religious studies.

By the time I entered my undergraduate studies in 1970 a new generation of European scholars were making their mark on the academic scene. The rise of nazism in Germany and the spread of fascism across Europe produced serious reflections about the meaning of life and the essential nature of humans. With such fundamental evil embodied in the political system of Germany, producing millions and millions of victims, scholars began to question previous assumptions about the meaning of life and the limits of human striving for the good of others. Two texts were considered to be essential to a liberal arts education when I was a student. One was Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” also published under the title “From Death Camp to Existentialism” and originally published under the title “Nevertheless, Say “Yes” to Life: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp.” The other, published somewhat later, was Eric Fromm’s “Escape from Freedom.”

Many evenings were spent in deep discussion of the concepts and ideas of these two books and some related essays and texts that were assigned by our professors. Is the essential nature of humans good or evil, neither or both? Is there a flow to history that moves towards greater justice, freedom and enlightenment or are the events of history essentially random and humans caught up in systems and events that are beyond our control? Do we make history or are we victims of it? Are humans destined for freedom? Does God intervene on behalf of human freedom? The questions remain weighty in the thought of many inside and outside of academic institutions.

Such discussions, however, are often considered to be frivolous or unnecessary in contemporary academic studies. The emphasis on scientific, technical, engineering and mathematics has led many academic institutions to decrease funding and support for the study of philosophy, religion, and social studies. Although psychology and psychiatry are still deemed to be worthy academic pursuits, their study has taken a definite move away from philosophical concerns and theological questions towards the gathering of quantifiable evidence and results-based studies. For those of us who received our education in a different era, there is a sense of loss with this intense focus. It seems to us that too many students are receiving their degrees without having spent any time at all considering bigger questions of context and meaning. They have become superb technicians and specialists without wrestling with the ethical implications of their craft. They have become experts in minutia without debating the big questions of life.

It remains to be seen what literature will grow out of the current political morass. It could be argued that American Democracy is facing one of this worst crises in the brief history of the rise of modern democracies. The intense gerrymandering, intentional voter suppression, divisional politics with no compromise and other factors currently influencing American politics are reminiscent of the conditions that led to the rapid rise of totalitarian governments in the first half of the 20th century. The study of history and academic comparisons between the two centuries, however, means that few are really studying the relationship between that time and our own.

Despite the flood of self-published and nearly self-published books and the volume of writing that is coming from our current situation, I cannot help but wonder where the critical writers are. I am not sure that these books are given serious academic scrutiny in our current situation. I know that contemporary students are not reading the books of the 20th century with the same intensity that we read them in our time.

With the rise of the Internet and other technological advances, the role of literature in academic studies is shifting. Libraries no longer resemble the vast repositories of books, articles and journals that was the case a few decades ago. Students cover vastly wider fields in their research projects. There is much more surveying the vast field of literature and much less deep contemplation of a single volume than once was the case. With the ability to cut and past text within documents, students are far less familiar even with their own writing than was the case when students typed multiple drafts of academic papers by hand.

There is no use in bemoaning the changes. The changes are real. New questions arise as to the efficacy of traditional university education in such a rapidly changing world. Degree programs are being replaced with certificate programs. On campus residential study is being replaced with online asymmetric education. The effects of these fundamental shifts in the educational system remain to be revealed. It will take a century or more to fully understand how much we have changed.

In the meantime, I keep reading books, looking for the deep reflective thinking that difficult times require. There are plenty of books that seek to explain what is going on. There are fewer ones that ask the question “Why?”

Despite their obviously dated titles and some clearly dated thinking, the questions raised by Frankl and Fromm remain. Those who seek wisdom could do worse than reading the books and contemplating their questions.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!