Michael Bérubé is a leading scholar of American literature and disability studies, Professor of Literature and Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Penn State, author of soon-to-be eight books, including Life As We Know It: A Father, A Family, and an Exceptional Child. He is altogether an esteemed member of the academic community, and “one of academia’s most wanted,” as Professor Barbara Black terms him in her welcoming monologue at Bérubé’s lecture on campus on February 12.
The atmosphere in the crowded Filene Hall grew anticipatory as Professor Bérubé walked to the podium and smiled affably. He began with a casual anecdote about a graduate professor with a hamartia for square white ties, garnering several laughs from the audience, and promptly dove into the presentation: The Value—And the Values—of the Humanities.
Bérubé made clear throughout his lecture that he is a strong supporter of the humanities and the creative discourse that is so essential to a liberal arts education. He teasingly referred to himself as “a humanist with an asterisk and a twenty-page annotation.”
Perhaps the most interesting and speculative portion of his lecture concerns what he calls, “the Universal,” meaning universal values, which we typically understand to transcend societal boundaries. Bérubé claims that on the contrary, the concept of the Universal, with roots in the Enlightenment, has imposed perimeters on values and on what we consider human, and that this ultimately degrades our collective society.
Bérubé suggests that our current understanding of universalism is not quite universal enough. Debating the “value of values,” in a sense, has been the missing component in the development of the concept. While many Western civilizations might admit we need expanded human rights, such a pursuit becomes murkier when we have to consider what constitutes a ‘right.’ What makes something universal? Bérubé notes that for centuries, the Divine Right of Kings might have been considered universal, and yet today, few in the West would acknowledge the legitimacy of that ideology. Rather, we debate women’s rights, gay rights, disability rights, and animal rights, to name a few.
This kind of discussion has rallied people for centuries: we might consider war an extreme manifestation of humanity’s inability to reconcile opinions over values, or the debate over welfare in our country a tragic one. Who decides which values are substantial enough to warrant the term ‘universal?’ We will likely never know, or else we will find it somewhere around a “children’s theme park at the border of Israel and Palestine,” as Bérubé notes sardonically.
And yet, he concludes, the only platform on which we can openly discuss such ideas as universalism, the only way we can criticize it effectively and with purpose, is in the context of universalism itself. We are condemned to forever debate the system of values that govern our societies, but in the end, perhaps we are better for it.