The questionable utility of the dancing bear, or, the future of the humanities


The role of the humanities in our society

The New York Times’ article,  “As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry,” once again decries declining enrollment.  I don’t understand why this should come as a surprise to anyone. The humanities are devalued everywhere you look in our society – so why should kids study them?  The humanities are prized only when we can hook them up to consumer interests, make them turn a coin, demand that they entertain us.  There’s always the implicit threat that if we can’t get the bear to dance, the poor old fellow will be put down.

In the world of education, we value humanities only if we can team people onto digital projects that make cool onscreen images or turn them into rap lyrics to make them palatable for the kids. I applaud a lot of these efforts, and appreciate their intent, but they’re rather beside the point.  Coolness and likability aren’t the reason Ovid was exiled, why Osip Mandelstam died scavenging a rubbish heap in a transit camp, why Reinhold Schneider was slated for trial and probable execution had the Third Reich not fallen first, or why André Brink was banned in South Africa.  And it certainly wasn’t why Joseph Brodsky, when I studied with him, made us memorize hundreds of lines of Robert Frost, W.H. Auden, Thomas Hardy, and others – in fact, it made him distinctly unfashionable; some kids fled the class rather than make the effort.  William Shakespeare can be mutilated, but he can’t be tamed.  As one teacher said, after a student had made a snarky, sophomoric comment about Hamlet:  “Mister, when you read Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s not on trial. You are.”  And that is the point.


Censored in South Africa (Photo: Creative Commons)

The tacit, self-calming assumption behind our continual cuts in the arts and humanities has always been always that the eternal things are durable, and will survive our neglect.  However, these values must be inculcated and passed on – a baby isn’t born appreciating the subtleties of Piero della Francesco or Raoul Dufy, after all.  Anything that isn’t fed eventually withers.  (I know; I have a garden to prove it.)  I’m told by those who teach that we now have a generation of young people who, in large measure, no longer ponder the terms of their existence or question their reason for being.  Tomorrow is for another pizza, ace-ing the PSAT, or another video game.  The “Holocaust” is a description of a description of Black Friday sales; the Civil Rights movement has something to do with … what?  Will I be graded on it?  I know, I know – it’s the “same old,” isn’t it?  But a serious study of history, another one of the humanities, would show that civilization is a delicate, perishable thing, appearing and disappearing throughout the centuries, and we can never take its continuance for granted (read Constantine Cavafy, Zbigniew Herbert, or the memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam). When we don’t pass it on, we break a fundamental chain of civilization. We’ll pay the price down the road … wait, we already are – but it’s not taking the form we had anticipated.

Reinhold-SchneiderI’m also tired of cheesy efforts to defend the humanities, which pander to the standards of our society, which are themselves a broken fence in need of repair. In any case, the fence is broken, in part, by the abandonment of literature, art, and music as the commitment of a civilized society, rather than a “frill.” I’m not saying a Haydn string quartet will save your life, but what often passes for music when I’m put on “hold” when calling my credit card company might be seen as the shocking invasion of psychological space that it is.  Sloppy thinking is everywhere, and not the province of one political party or the other – and the fact that it is inevitably attributed to the “other” in itself shows what a bad pass we’ve come to (it’s something that might have been corrected with an introductory study of Carl Jung, or René Girard, for that matter). Our political life is riddled with clichés that should be jeered offstage, because it’s a nasty way to use your Mother Tongue.  Technology, which has the power for good, has accelerated our race to the bottom, just as nuclear power, which could rescue nations, propels us toward annihilation.

Rant over.  Whew!  Not to worry!  I’m back on my medication now.  More on this subject in the coming days…from better minds than Humble Moi!  I’ll start with one of them, Michel Serres, of Stanford and the Académie Française.  I’ve featured it before, and recently, but if you haven’t seen it, please listen to his description of the fate of the humanities.  It’s not pretty.


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6 Responses to “The questionable utility of the dancing bear, or, the future of the humanities”

  1. Crisis of the Humanities: "Shakespeare’s not on trial. You are." | cosmostheinlost Says:

    […] Haven let loose yesterday over at The Book Haven with the piece “The questionable utility of the dancing bear, or, the future of the humanities.” She […]

  2. Lincoln Hunter Says:

    It’s unclear to me whether the humanities are approaching their end in the USA only or if it includes the rest of Western Civilization. Any thoughts on that?

  3. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Heavens, I wouldn’t want to make any kind of statement that is so categorical and sweeping! I certainly don’t have any crystal ball, but I am discouraged and pessimistic by the trends I see. In a few minutes, I’ll post some comments from South African writer J.M. Coetzee, who lives in Australia – two other continents. So clearly it isn’t strictly a national phenomenon. Also, Michel Serres is commenting in the video, presumably describing European trends.

  4. Pete Warden Says:

    “I’m told by those who teach that we now have a generation of young people who, in large measure, no longer ponder the terms of their existence or question their reason for being.”

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and that’s an extraordinary claim. The countless miseries of history have never beaten the hunger for answers out of every new generation, so I’ll need a little more than a second-hand assertion to swallow this one. Have you truly not seen curiosity and the struggle for truth in the kids you’ve met recently? If you haven’t, aren’t you worried that you’re just hanging out with the wrong crowd?

    From my perspective, we’re living in an age when everyday people are writing and reading far more than I’d ever have dreamt of twenty or thirty years ago, thousands of people can discover a blog like yours that illuminates their lives with tales of history and poetry, and there are wonders like Emily Dickinson’s original materials available instantly at our fingertips.

    I’ll be enjoying the San Francisco Olympians festival over the next few weeks. There will be dozens of plays, all driven by the enthusiasm of the writers, actors and directors, and financed by a public that’s hungry for the humanities. The whole effort is driven by young people, and it sounds like just the cure for your pessimism.

  5. Cynthia Haven Says:

    I genuinely hope you’re right, Pete. I don’t claim this is proof, but rather anecdote. Undoubtedly, there are plenty of anecdotes on the other side, and I see them sometimes, too.

    But if you’re right, why are we constantly being asked to find jazzy new ways to “defend” the humanities? Why do they need defense and clever arguments at all?

  6. SuiteLinks: November 9 « Piano Addict Says:

    […] Future of humanities […]