Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A use for the useless

Over at Mind the Gap, Molly Sheridan draws our attention to a recent Harper's essay on the neglect of the humanities in the modern education system. I see your eyes rolling already, but this essay is far superior to your average jeremiad, mostly because of its superb writing. (The author, Mark Slouka, is a published novelist and a professor at the University of Chicago). He neatly skewers the obsession American educationists seem to have with Singapore, supposedly a paradise of efficient, workforce-centred education:
If only we could be more like Singapore. If only our education system could be as efficient as Singapore’s. You say that Singapore might not be the best model to aspire to, that in certain respects it more closely resembles Winston Smith’s world than Thomas Jefferson’s? What does that have to do with education?

Despite the efforts of our government to keep up (or, arguably, down) with Singapore by privileging math and science over other subjects, an occasional student still gets the opportunity for a transformative encounter with the humanities:
Even a dessicated, values-free version of the humanities has the potential to be dangerous, though, because it is impossible to say where the individual mind might wander off to while reading, what unsettling associations might suggest themselves, what unscripted, unapproved questions might float to the surface. It’s been said before: in the margins of the page, over the course of time, for the simple reason that we shape every book we read and are slightly shaped by it in turn, we become who we are. Which is to say individuals just distinct enough from one another in our orientation toward “the truth” or “the good” to be difficult to control.

This “deep” civic function of the humanities, not easily reducible to the politics of left or right but politically combustible nonetheless, is something understood very well by totalitarian societies, which tend to keep close tabs on them, and to circumscribe them in direct proportion to how stringently the population is controlled. This should neither surprise nor comfort us. Why would a repressive regime support a force superbly designed to resist it? Rein in the humanities effectively enough—whether through active repression, fiscal starvation, or linguistic marginalization—and you create a space, an opportunity. Dogma adores a vacuum.
Well, I suppose. This sort of rhetoric is simultaneously extremely true and rather tiresome, and depending on what mood I'm in, my reaction will vary from enthusiastic approval to eye-rolling irritation. On the one hand, this writing captures an experience that any sympathetic reader will recognize: the free-floating stream of ideas that follows when we imaginatively engage with a worthwhile piece of art, or literature, or philosophy. On the other, I resent the idea that the value of the humanities lies in their supposedly subversive political implications: is that why we return to the B Minor Mass, or Turangalila, or the Four Quartets? To value art primarily, or even particularly, as a pleasant way of inciting political dissent smacks of the most vulgar Marxism. Surely we return to our favourite works of art because we once discovered them to be beautiful, and because recognizing and apprehending that beauty makes us feel more intensely what it means to be human.

There is something ultimately counterproductive about defending the humanities from their fashionable detractors. I would be surprised to discover that anyone's mind was ever changed by articles like Slouka's - your allies in the humanities cheer, your opponents make the usual facile and cynical comments about the uselessness and impracticality of your discipline, the bureaucrats in the Board of Education carry on as before, and the dean of the business school makes plans for a new addition. Nothing has changed. Prospective university applicants are left with the impression that math, science and "business" courses equip one to "succeed in the marketplace", while the humanities equip one to write eloquent yet snarky essays in newsmagazines. Given the choice, few 18-year olds would choose the prospect of eloquent snarkiness over material success. Indeed, although I've written a number of snarky essays of my own in this space on various subjects, I don't find that they read well in retrospect. (In fact, of all the posts on this site, I am probably proudest of this one, which encompasses literary pastiche, commentary on the midcentury American music scene, and the Bishop of Fad Dieting.)

I am always reminded of high school, at its best and at its considerable worst, when the "crisis of the humanities" comes up. In retrospect, the history of my secondary education can be read as a war of attrition between the humanities and "practical education," waged against such fearsome opponents as the guidance counsellor who urged students away from music and into computer classes, or the vice-principal who attempted to stop a student-run drama production because it might interfere with our academics. I was particularly shocked to see a number of promising humanities students choose to "go into" something called "business." ("What on earth is 'business'?" I asked at the time, and no-one could give me a satisfactory answer. Thanks mostly to Facebook, I have regained contact with some of these people, who now work for corporations but seem either unable or unwilling to articulate what, exactly, they do all day. I still have no idea.)

Perhaps the "crisis of the humanities" would be resolved if we stopped thinking of it as a battle between disciplines. There is something dehumanizing about an outlook that views each student only as a potential scientist, or a potential humanities student, or a potential inhabitant of the shadowy halls of "business" - an outlook that views students as somehow interchangeable. Yet no profession can be so desperate for new blood as to seriously want employees who would rather be doing something else. Indeed, my interactions with many companies, and especially with the public sector, suggest that our society is full of workers who would rather be doing something else. Their problem seems to be less a lack of energy or talent than a lack of enthusiasm for their tasks, a managerial outlook that serves only to maintain the status quo. In an earlier age, these people might have been artisans or farmers, but those sectors of the global economy were long ago outsourced to the Third World.

There is no easy answer to the ills of the humanities: if an eloquent jeremiad could have fixed the problem, our troubles would have ended in 1987. (In Slouka's defence, his article goes far beyond the usual stereotypes: I was especially pleased to see him lay partial blame on the humanities themselves, for their simultaneous embrace of triviality and obscurantism.) However, a start would be to depoliticize the high school guidance office. Students don't need further pressure to go to university and pursue a lucrative private-sector career; even less do they need to be shielded from the realities of the marketplace and told to follow their wildest dreams. What they need is to be left alone and given an opportunity to figure out what line of work suits their interests and skills. Those who appreciate most keenly the importance of the humanities to our human identity will take appropriate steps, and those whose literal-mindedness prevents them from seeing anything in the arts except a waste of time and money will pursue careers in which this characteristic is a positive boon, like chartered accountancy.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

Excellent post. I could rant on myself, about how we never read anything in elementary school that was actually worthwhile, or about the woes caused by a wilful ignorance of the past, but I'm going to go back to studying Latin instead.