Great Antidote Extras: Cheryl Miller on Hertog and the Humanities

liberal education great books civic education liberal arts deep literacy hertog foundation

January 23, 2024

Vander Veer listens in and reminds us that learning is more than schooling. She also offers ideas for keeping it up reading and conversation beyond the classroom. 
In this episode of the Great Antidote podcast, host Juliette Sellgren welcomes Cheryl Miller, executive director of the Hertog Foundation. The Hertog Foundation promotes the serious study of the humanities among future policy leaders. Sellgren and Miller discuss this, as well as the state of the humanities inside and outside of the university. In addition, you will find out  the best place to start with Edith Wharton’s novels. Hint: Ethan Fromm can wait.

Cheryl Miller was on the path to becoming an academic, but ultimately took a different route as a speechwriter and researcher in journalism and policy think tanks. An erstwhile English and politics major, she now helps undergraduates and recent graduates, like Great Antidote host Juliette Sellgren, an alumna of Hertog programs, engage with great texts.

You can listen to the episode here: Cheryl Miller on Hertog and the Humanities

It’s easy for me to see why Juliette is so enthusiastic about the work of the Hertog Foundation. As an undergraduate working on my degree in the Latin and Greek classics, I had the good fortune to participate in colloquia with Liberty Fund and other similar organizations, some focused more on the classics of political theory or economics, others more on history or literature. As a result, I ended up with a broad-base that has influenced my growth as a human being, whether in the context of my career, my writing, or my personal life. 

Picking a good book or a good major doesn’t necessarily lead to enrichment and, even within universities, the humanities are in trouble. As Miller says:
There was this big article in the New Yorker recently called “The End of the English Major”… it looked at the decline of the humanities at American universities. And I mean this was true across institutions. It was at big state schools, it was at private selective schools like the Ivys. It was even at liberal arts colleges, and that's like their bread and butter. And he just finds the number of students who are majoring in the humanities has fallen off a cliff.
Not only that, but we’re all living in a screen-saturated society. We experience a constant stream of information and stimulation but are relatively isolated. There’s not much space inside or outside of the university for the kind of deep reading and thinking that the humanities promise to provide.  I’m sure many a reader can recognize the following in themselves or the world around them.
[A Shakespeare scholar] had all these kind of disturbing anecdotes... [about] how hard it is to read a book now in part because the pool of screens your iPhone looking at that has kind of changed the way that he reads, such that he finds it hard or to be more attentive. There was a Harvard professor talking about how hard it is for students just to understand a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel, just on the sentence level, what is this guy actually saying? So that's something that really worries me, especially because I think it's actually more important than we might think for policymakers.
Luckily there is an antidote. Reading books in community with each other gives us space to deeply engage with ideas and with others. Programs like those at Hertog help create intellectual community and giving participants the opportunity to read more deeply than they otherwise would in their individual silos.

While the perpetual distraction machines in our pockets and the glowing rectangles surrounding us can distract us, other tools can help build this very community we need (Liberty Fund Virtual Reading Groups are a great example), and of course give us access to vast amounts of reading material (think of the Online Library of Liberty!).

Everyone has an interest in creating and sustaining a culture where deep learning thrives, perhaps especially for those who have decision making power in government, business and society. 

There are advantages to being in conversation and being plugged into the great conversation of human thoughts. Old problems come up again in new forms, and we can be in conversation with more than two millennia of other voices as we spar over ideas with each other.

What will you do this year to further this culture of deep learning and reading? Pick up a big book? Start a reading group? Hertog mentioned reading groups and study through The Catherine Project or maybe you will join me in the upcoming one-day virtual reading group Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War: the Emancipation Proclamation

Want to explore more?
Philip Yancey’s “The death of reading in threatening the soul” in the Washington Post
Henry Oliver’s “The humanities aren’t dying; they’re emigrating” in The Critic
Marcel Proust and John Ruskin on Reading published by Hesperus Press at AdamSmithWorks
C.S. Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism published by Cambridge University Press
Why Read the Ancients Today? A Liberty Matters Forum at the Online Library of Liberty
Shannon Chamberlain’s Adam Smith Suggests You Read a Romance Novel (And Have a Laugh At Yourself) at Speaking of Smith
Jack Russel Weinstein’s Adam Smith on Education: Schooling and Adam Smith on Education : Socialization and Acculturation at AdamSmithWorks
G. Patrick Lynch’s Educating for Character at Home: Adam Smith and John and Abigail Adams at AdamSmithWorks
Jon Murphy, Adam Smith Also Teaches Good Teaching at Speaking of Smith
Art Carden, How to Read a Book Inspectionally at Speaking of Smith