Monday, March 09, 2009

What good are the humanities?

In this article, the case is made that PC has made the humanities dreadful and irrelevant to students. I won't argue with that.

Ms Cohen says that the "critical thinking, civic and historical knowledge and ethical reasoning that the humanities develop... are prerequisites for personal growth and participation in a free democracy," and of course I'd be happy to join her in that view of the humanities. But in saying so she seems completely out of touch with what is really happening in college humanities courses, for it is not this. Doesn't she know that civic and historical knowledge of American history and institutions is at a low ebb precisely because that knowledge does not mesh with the dominant politically correct ethos of the professoriate?

Also true, at least at some times and in some places.

But I reject the notion that the humanities are some particularly nasty-tasting medicine that the student takes because it makes him a better person, for his mental health, so to speak--for "personal growth," a tiresome phrase that reminds me of granola and whole wheat bread without additives.

I don't agree with that view. I regret many things I've done in my life, but I don't regret spending four years reading great literature. I enjoyed it, but I don't believe it taught me wisdom or goodness. Life teaches you those things, to the extent you can learn them. When I was 20 I had read all of Shakespeare's plays but I couldn't say boo to a goose.

Shakespeare and the rest don't need me to argue their case. Great art gives great pleasure.


Nancy Willing said...

Good post! I'd rather not read about your feet.
Just sayin'

airforcewife said...

I disagree that the humanities don't teach us those things!

We evaluate the world around us through the prism of our knowledge. It is why most people have trouble moving between different social groups - in order to be comfortable within a social group, you must have an understanding of the culture of that group.

To put it in a political perspective with an example: During the '04 election I remember watching the opening of the Clinton Library on TV and thinking, "Despite their different politics and the current rancor, W and Clinton look far more comfortable with each other than Kerry looks with anyone present."

The reason being, of course, was the Clinton and Bush could use a paper napkin and eat barbecue off a paper plate comfortably and John Kerry could not. Clinton and Bush could also, though, wear a tux comfortably. They could operate in both milieus.

It's much easier to acclimate to a culture you have some knowledge of, and a lot of knowledge comes through reading. The problem with John Kerry (and Barack Obama, too, I may add) is that if you think that middle America is all Joads all the time - you're believing a caricature and you won't be able to behave appropriately.

If that makes any sense. It may not.

miriam said...

Nancy: It's not my feet that are the problem, it's the feet pictured in the doctor's office. Thanks for the compliment, though.

I don't think Clinton and W come from the same background, but both are likeable, convivial men who are at ease in any surroundings.

Kerry is a humorless stiff. He looks stupid in any get-up. And he went to Harvard, anyway, back in the day, and comes from a fancy family.

miriam said...

I perhaps stated this awkwardly. Here's what I wanted to say: The humanities don't make you richer or morally superior. They have value in themselves.