The Case for the Humanities

In response to my previous post, a lurking friend sent me a link to a rousing piece by Mark Slouka from laast September’s issue of Harper’s. (Thank you! Also, you should comment here some time. Choose a sly pseudonym; we’ll never know it’s you.) Some excerpts:

You have to admire the skill with which we’ve been outmaneuvered; there’s something almost chess-like in the way the other side has narrowed the field, neutralized lines of attack, co-opted the terms of battle. It’s all about them now; every move we make plays into their hands, confirms their values. Like the narrator in Mayakovsky’s “Conversation with a Tax Collector About Poetry,” we’re being forced to account for ourselves in the other’s idiom, to argue for “the place of the poet/in the workers’ ranks.” It’s not working. . . .
What is taught, at any given time, in any culture, is an expression of what that culture considers important. That much seems undebatable. How “the culture” decides, precisely, on what matters, how openly the debate unfolds—who frames the terms, declares a winner, and signs the check—well, that’s a different matter. Real debate can be short-circuited by orthodoxy, and whether that orthodoxy is enforced through the barrel of a gun or backed by the power of unexamined assumption, the effect is the same.
In our time, orthodoxy is economic. Popular culture fetishizes it, our entertainments salaam to it (how many millions for sinking that putt, accepting that trade?), our artists are ranked by and revered for it. There is no institution wholly apart. Everything submits; everything must, sooner or later, pay fealty to the market; thus cost-benefit analyses on raising children, on cancer medications, on clean water, on the survival of species, including—in the last, last analysis—our own. If humanity has suffered under a more impoverishing delusion, I’m not aware of it. . . .

It can be touching to watch supporters of the arts contorting themselves to fit. In a brochure produced by The Education Commission of the States, titled “The Arts, Education and the Creative Economy,” we learn that supporting the arts in our schools is a good idea because “state and local leaders are realizing that the arts and culture are vital to economic development.” In fact, everyone is realizing it. Several states “have developed initiatives that address the connections between economic growth and the arts and culture.” The New England states have formed “the Creative Economy Council . . . a partnership among business, government and cultural -leaders.” It seems that “a new economy has emerged . . . driven by ideas, information technology and globalization” (by this point, the role of painting, say, is getting a bit murky), and that “for companies and organizations to remain competitive and cutting edge, they must attract and retain individuals who can think creatively.”

You can almost see the air creeping back into the balloon: We can do this! We can make the case to management! We can explain, as Mike Huckabee does, that trimming back funding for the arts would be shortsighted because “experts and futurists warn that the future economy will be driven by the ‘creative class.’” We can cite “numerous studies” affirming that “a student schooled in music improves his or her SAT and ACT scores in math,” and that “creative students are better problem solvers . . . a trait the business world begs for in its workforce.” They’ll see we have some value after all. They’ll let us stay. . .

The case for the humanities is not hard to make, though it can be difficult—to such an extent have we been marginalized, so long have we acceded to that marginalization—not to sound either defensive or naive. The humanities, done right, are the crucible within which our evolving notions of what it means to be fully human are put to the test; they teach us, incrementally, endlessly, not what to do but how to be. Their method is confrontational, their domain unlimited, their “product” not truth but the reasoned search for truth, their “success” something very much like Frost’s momentary stay against confusion. . . .

Alas, despite our eagerness to fit in, to play ball, we still don’t belong, we’re still ignored or infantilized. What we’ve earned is the prerogative of going out with a whimper. Marginalized, self-righteous, we just keep on keeping on, insulted that no one returns our calls, secretly expecting no less.
Read the whole thing here, if, like me, you missed it when it first came out, and then send it to anyone you know with an interest in truly higher education–or any influence! To be sure, Canada is not the United States, and some of the details don’t apply here in quite the same way, but the basic idea–that we are making a painful and ultimately self-defeating category mistake when we try to justify our work in the terms provided by, suited for, something altogether different, is just as important in our context. It may be more important here, in fact, because we lack the habit of vigorous public debate and public spiritedness that is such a longstanding part of the American identity. We lack a national myth of self-assertion to buoy (or sell) any revolutionary rhetoric. But on all sides our current political landscape surely displays the inadequacies of our collective sense of “how to be.”

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