Defending the humanities: “Show, don’t tell.”

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bauerlein

Take the “no-brainer option.” And hurry.

Earlier today, a friend brought my attention to Mark Bauerlein‘s defense of the humanities over at the New Criterion.  Like me, he is frustrated by the misguided arguments advanced to defend the humanities (I wrote about that recently, here and here and here).

His diagnosis of the disease:

In a word, the defenders rely on what the humanities do, not what they are. If you take humanities courses, they assure, you will become a good person, a critical thinker, a skilled worker, a cosmopolitan citizen. What matters is how grads today think and act, not what Swift wrote, Kant thought, or O’Keeffe painted. No doubt, all of the defenders love particular novels and films, symphonies and paintings, but those objects play no role in their best defense. Ironically, the approach resembles the very utilitarianism the defenders despise, the conversion of liberal education into a set of instruments for producing selected mentalities and capabilities.

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Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “Pericles” in Washington D.C., supported by NEA

What an odd angle, and an ineffectual one. Think of it from the perspective of two individuals whose decisions directly affect the humanities, one of them a twenty-year-old sophomore picking classes for spring term, the other a sixty-year-old state legislator on a committee setting the year’s higher education budget. If the sophomore avoids humanities courses, she hurts enrollment numbers for the fields, a factor in how a dean allocates resources across departments. If the politician discerns no palpable gain from humanities instruction, he will steer funds to technical colleges and vocational programs. What will change their minds? …

The advantages they promise are too vague and deferred (“to know something of other civilizations,” “opportunities for integrative thinking,” “act adroitly,” “we’re human”), especially in contrast to other options (“major in speech therapy and become a speech therapist—there’s a shortage!”). Besides, social science fields claim the same insights, such as the anthropologist who rejoins, “And we don’t study what it means to be human?!” Hard scientists, too, might add, “You want critical thinking? Learn the scientific method!”

Tepid and half-credible, these fuzzy encouragements sound ever more vain and dispirited the more they circulate. They exhort the public to appreciate the humanities, but, with the grounds so abstract and promissory, the appeal falls flat. The failure comes down to bad marketing. The defenders misconstrue their audience. They think that support for the humanities will stand on the anticipation of a job skill, a civic sense, or moral self-improvement, but these future benefits are insufficient to youths worried about debt, politicians about revenue, and employers about workplace needs. No, students enroll and politicians fund and donors donate for a different reason, because they care about the humanities themselves, and they care about them because they’ve had a compelling exposure to a specific work. …

Then he brings up an interesting point.  Most of us were taught, somewhere in our zillion years of education, to “show, don’t tell” when writing. Have the folks in the humanities, of all places, forgotten that fundamental lesson? 

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Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s “Othello,” supported by NEA

My former boss Dana Gioia understood it well. As Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (2003–09), he was obligated to use the bully pulpit and summon local and national, public and private support for museums, orchestras, and after-school arts programs. It was a delicate task partly because of the suspicion conservatives retained for this agency at the center of the Culture Wars ten years earlier, and partly because saying the wrong thing could jeopardize the annual request for funding from Congress.

In the early 2000s, as No Child Left Behind pressed schools to cut arts, theater, dance, and music programs, organizations such as Americans for the Arts offered standard reasons for arts education including the commercial value of arts investments, better reading and math scores by kids in schools with music instruction, and behavioral improvements for kids in theater programs. Gioia recited them dutifully, but relied at critical times on another one: direct exposure. When he conceived a national initiative called Shakespeare in American Communities with a large in-school component, he might have presented it to Members of Congress in testimony backed by the usual moral and economic corollaries. But instead, he hosted an event on Capitol Hill for Members and invited 5th-graders from Rafe Esquith’s legendary Shakespeare program in Los Angeles to show up in Elizabethan garb and perform scenes and soliloquies for them.

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Shakespeare & Co.’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”

The event proved the point. The kids acted splendidly, and a few Members themselves grabbed a costume and declaimed lines, reenacting their own school days and drama club. The politicians had heard every rationale for cultural programs before, but the call of “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” they could not withstand. Gioia got the funding—and heaps of good will, too.

Exposure works better than explanation, participation better than entreaty. The humanities defenders, mistakenly, try to persuade and coerce when they should intrigue, excite, fascinate, and inspire. Why humanities defenders neglect this no-brainer option, why they lay down their strongest weapons, is a mystery only if we forget the turn from primary texts decades earlier.

Read the whole thing here.


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