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English Department
277 Fenton Hall
State University of
New York at Fredonia
Fredonia, NY 14063
Ph: (716) 673-3125
Fax: (716) 673-4661

Theodore Steinberg, "The Holocaust and the Humanities: And Exhortative Meditation," The Humanist Educator (March 1980): 114-128.

"Hitler patronized, indeed, got much of his inspiration from opera, literature, and philosophy. Rosenberg fancied himself a philosopher. Goebbels held a doctorate in literature. Himmler taught in elementary school. Concentration camp commandants would come home from a hard day of killing to read Shakespeare and play string quartets. Only the plastic arts really suffered, and only because Hitler thought himself an artist" (119).

In these fourteen pages, Steinberg attempts to reconcile humanity with the atrocities committed during the Holocaust. He also attempts to define "the humanities" both for the present day and classically. Steinberg points out that, classically, the humanities "developed largely as a reaction to late medieval scholasticism and ... emphasized the study of classical Latin and, to a lesser extent, Greek literature" (115). While the humanities may have begun as "studia humanitatis," or a liberal education, Steinberg, distinguished teaching professor of English at the State University of New York at Fredonia, believes that the word has developed into something quite different. "It leads, in short, to the transformation of the humanities from the expression of human spirit and the exploration of what it means to be human to lists of rules and categories, as though Milton checked his handbook of literature to make sure he knew the rules for an epic before he wrote Paradise Lost" (117).

Steinberg, whose teaching and research focus on biblical, medieval, ancient Greek and Roman literature and Renaissance literature, prefers to define "the humanities" as an examination and expression of the human spirit rather than the rules of form and grammar it has come to represent in K-12 schools. "Of course students should learn to read, write, and do arithmetic, but not at the expense of their humanity, not if it means forcing them to be blindfolded with both trembling hands behind their backs" (126). The humanities has been subjected to standardized testing, Regents requirements, and funding issues for so long that educators who do not teach at the university level are forced to focus on mechanics rather than guiding students to understand language's role in constructing meaning. Discussions that involve the relationship between writing, expression and the human experience seem to have little importance in pre-college humanities classrooms.

"We are reminded always that it was the Nazis - a mythical horde of sub-humans from outer space - who did it all. They descended, unbidden, on the most highly sophisticated, Kultured nation on earth and issued orders which they dare could not, and did not, disobey. Apparently no living German was ever a Nazi; very few even saw one, and whatever atrocities did happen, took place during what is known as the 'Hitler Era' - or in the 'time of the Nazis' - which is the greatest collective alibi ever conceived" (118). Steinberg's greatest question, to which he responds with a firm yes, is: Could a humanistic education and the study of the humanities help to prevent a holocaust?

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