Monday, December 28, 2009

The Troubles with –ibles (and –ables)

Despite appearances to the contrary, there are practical applications to the study of literature. Perhaps the most important is the deep knowledge of language. English contains up to a quarter million words. Imagine a tool calibrated to a quarter million settings; that’s a high degree of precision. The study of literature brings with it a greater awareness of the clarity of language. Conversely, it can teach the dangers of imprecise language. During December 2009, my blog entries dealt with the uses and abuses of language.


I’ve dedicated this month to the deep knowledge of language that comes from the study of the humanities. But in my previous entries, I’ve defined the humanities almost exclusively as the study of literature. The humanities, however, encompass both literature and languages. It’s easy to see the practical application of a foreign language for travel, or for dealing with tourists in the United States. But how does the study of a foreign language, like Italian, help in the knowledge of English?

Those of us who teach second languages know that they help a great deal in understanding English. The American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) has a national standard based on five “c’s”: communication, cultures, connections, comparisons, and communities. The fourth “c,” comparisons, is about learning about one’s first language by reference to the second.

All of this is pretty abstract, so let me use one simple example—spelling. Spelling is the bane of every learner of English, whether it’s your first or second language. The reason is simple: English spelling isn’t phonological, but etymological. That means that it doesn’t reflect present-day pronunciation, but the history of the word. Right, write, and rite all sound the same now, but are spelled differently because in the past they were entirely different. The fact is, the spelling of many words simply needs to be memorized.

As kids, we all faced two lists of words to be memorized, -ibles and –ables. As in edible and eatable; responsible and answerable. The differences between the two lists were imponderable. We suffered considerable anguish and spent unreasonable amounts of time, but our results were often risible. English is incredible! Sometimes the pronunciation helped, as in possible and probable. Much of the time it didn’t. If only there were a rule…

Actually, there is an easy rule as to when it’s –ible or –able. In Latin, verbs came in three forms, with endings that were either –are, -ere or –ire. The rule is this: if the word’s derived from a Latin –are verb it’s –able; if –ere or –ire it’s –ible. And any verbs of non-Latin origin get treated as if –are, hence doable, drinkable and readable.

Ok, few English-speakers know Latin etymologies. Is there any other way to learn the rule?

In its evolution from Latin, almost no Italian verbs changed category. So –are verbs in Latin are almost always –are in Italian (likewise with –ere and –ire). Hence, in Italian we have adjectives that are either –abile or –ibile. Those adjectives are almost identical to their English equivalents (i.e., possibile, probabile). The difference is, in Italian, -abile and –ibile are pronounced differently from each other, so spelling them is rather easy. The shortcut is this: if it’s –abile in Italian then it’s –able in English, -ibile in Italian then –ible in English.

But if you’ve never learned Latin or Italian, well then you’re just plain out of luck. Start memorizing!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Danger! Metaphors!

Despite appearances to the contrary, there are practical applications to the study of literature. Perhaps the most important is the deep knowledge of language. English contains up to a quarter million words. Imagine a tool calibrated to a quarter million settings; that’s a high degree of precision. The study of literature brings with it a greater awareness of the clarity of language. Conversely, it can teach the dangers of imprecise language. During December 2009, my blog entries dealt with the uses and abuses of language.


Warning: Metaphors ahead!

Probably the single most important literary technique is metaphor. For the readers to identify with a fictional character, they must view it as representative of themselves. Odysseus’ ten-year struggle to return to Ithaca therefore can be symbolic of some personal struggle for the readers. The study of literature familiarizes the students with metaphor, and that’s highly important. In the wrong hands, metaphors can be dangerous.

No, I’m not being facetious. We all learned about metaphors in middle school. Metaphors and similes are two types of analogy. Similes have the word “like” or “as,” and metaphors don’t. Simile: “My love for you is like a rose.” Metaphor: “my love for you is a rose.” What’s the problem?

The problem is that all analogies are fundamentally wrong. Love is not literally a flower. I may recognize one aspect of it as similar to a rose. With a simile, everyone is conscious of the analogy. “Like” reminds everyone that it’s just a comparison. Metaphor doesn’t offer that help, so its meaning needs to be implicit. But sometimes its meaning becomes too implicit. If a metaphor becomes commonplace, people can easily forget that it is, in fact, a metaphor. Instead, it gets treated as a truth statement. Here lies the danger: people propose courses of action based on the analogy, rather than the facts at hand.

For example, in 1992, presidential candidate Pat Buchanan proposed that the US military should “protect the border” from illegal immigrants. Consider that for a second: how would the government have used the military? Would the government have deployed tanks against border crossers? Shelled northern Mexico? And how exactly would the US Air Force have figured in? Buchanan hadn’t entirely taken leave of his senses. For years, the illegal immigration problem was discussed in certain quarters with the language of invasion. The word invasion was metaphorical, but Buchanan proposed a course of action as if it were literal.

Another example: in 2002, during the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq, French President Jacques Chirac opposed the invasion on the grounds that the UN weapons inspectors should be given more time. In agreement with him were the governments of Germany, Russia, China, and the Vatican, among others. But in the US, there was great anger directed specifically at France. Why France and not the other countries? During the run-up to war, many people compared Saddam Hussein to Hitler and the current crisis to World War II. And, of course, the US liberated France in World War II. It struck many US citizens as an act of betrayal that France didn’t support the US in this World War II. They confused the metaphor for reality. But Saddam Hussein was not literally Hitler, the Iraq invasion was not literally World War II, and in retrospect Jacques Chirac was absolutely right that the UN inspectors should have had more time to search for the (non-existent) WMD program.

If you pay attention to everyday discourse, there are many examples of people confusing common metaphors for reality. And I haven’t included the very tragic cases when demagogues defined another group of individuals as vermin or an infestation, and then the masses acted accordingly.

Here then is a societal benefit to the widespread study of literature. An informed citizenry, cognizant about literary techniques, might stand less of a chance of confusing metaphors with reality.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Flattery, Hype, and Bullsh*t

Despite appearances to the contrary, there are practical applications to the study of literature. Perhaps the most important is the deep knowledge of language. English contains up to a quarter million words. Imagine a tool calibrated to a quarter million settings; that’s a high degree of precision. The study of literature brings with it a greater awareness of the clarity of language. Conversely, it can teach the dangers of imprecise language. During December 2009, my blog entries dealt with the uses and abuses of language.


In one of the lowest portions of hell, Dante comes across the flatterers. The flatterers are immersed in a large, stinking pile of excrement. They wallow in it, and their bodies are smeared all over by it. The symbolism of the passage is quite clear. Flattery is no better than dung. There is a modern-day term that strongly recalls Dante’s allegory: BULLSH*T.

Recently, the philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt published a study entitled On Bullsh*t. Frankfurt tries to determine the very nature of bullsh*t, in particular how it differs from lies. He concludes that a liar accepts the truth (but wants to keep you from it), while a bullsh*tter speaks with no consideration of the truth. A lie is based on the truth, albeit negatively. Bullsh*t is language where the distinction between truth and falsity is irrelevant.

During this month, this blog is dealing with the contemporary uses and misuses of language. The previous two entries have dealt with meaningless language; how people use words without consideration to their meanings, and worse, how people refer to entire texts without consideration of their messages. Both entries are dealing with essentially the same phenomenon. In a word, it’s bullsh*t.

To use examples from the earlier entries, a bank promoted itself as “extreme banking,” and Nike used the Beatles’ “Revolution” in its advertisement. “Extreme” means nothing in relationship to banking, and the Beatles’ song has nothing to do with shoes. These are all different from basic errors in grammar. In common speech and emails to friends, everybody makes mistakes. But in multi-million dollar ad campaigns, every word and image is picked over. Someone somewhere chose to make all those statements, regardless if they reflected the truth or not.

Frankfurter’s analysis is insightful, but he omits one important point, the bullsh*tter’s motivation. There is always an ulterior motive. This is where Dante’s Inferno is quite helpful. One of the flatterers in Dante’s hell is a character from classical literature, the prostitute Thais. Dante recalls her false praise of her customer’s sexual prowess. Of course, he wasn’t really good in bed, but she wanted to ensure his repeat business. Sound familiar? Just like flatterers, people bullsh*t to get something from the listener. The hype in today’s advertising is no different from Thais’ flattery.

Sometimes bullsh*tters want to impress you by making themselves look better; or sometimes they want to make someone else look worse. These are the most common examples of bullsh*t in political discourse. After the US House of Representatives approved President Obama’s healthcare reform, those opposed rallied on the Capitol’s steps. Someone had erected a sign with a photograph of the bodies at Dachau under the caption “Socialized Medicine.” So… by extending coverage to all Americans, which would save lives, the law is somehow like the extermination of millions of human beings?


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Verba pro re vera

Despite appearances to the contrary, there are practical applications to the study of literature. Perhaps the most important is the deep knowledge of language. English contains up to a quarter million words. Imagine a tool calibrated to a quarter million settings; that’s a high degree of precision. The study of literature brings with it a greater awareness of the clarity of language. Conversely, it can teach the dangers of imprecise language. During December 2009, my blog entries dealt with the uses and abuses of language.


Quick: what do revolutionary Jamaican theology and politics have to do with a lobster?

In last week’s entry, I discussed George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language.” In 1946, Orwell decried the staleness of language when people weren’t concerned with expressing their own ideas clearly. Instead, they co-opted other people’s ideas, and the result was muddled writing. The problem is still occurring. Politics plays a role, but today commerce causes many abuses of language. The words in much advertising really say nothing. The advertisers capitalize on the emotional impact of words with no consideration of their meanings.

The problem, however, is far worse than meaningless words. Entire texts get divorced from their meaning.

For example, in 1987 Nike used the Beatles’ “Revolution” to sell shoes. When the Beatles wrote “Revolution,” it was their response to the hard-left. The working-class boys from Liverpool disappointed European Marxists who’d hoped that they would promote revolution. Violent revolution. What does that have to do with running shoes?

Absolutely nothing. Perhaps Nike wanted consumers to think that their shoes were revolutionary. You know the line, “You say you want a revolution….” Except that the song is about rejecting revolution, not embracing it. However you look at it, this song isn’t good material for a commercial. And yet, Nike paid millions for it.

This type of abuse is common. Cruise lines promote themselves with Iggy Pop’s paean to heroine “Lust for Life.” Why would they want to connect Caribbean vacations to addiction? They don’t. They want you to think of the excitement of the song itself, but not what the song’s about.

The Latin title of this entry means “words as things.” The technical term is “reification,” which happens when people treat concepts as objective things. Reification also occurs to entire texts. At a certain point, it becomes so popular that it overshadows its own meaning. People remember the work as a thing, but not as the medium of a message.

Reification happens with many different works, not just songs. In Rome, the Catholic Church is sponsoring a stage performance of the Divine Comedy. The Church has forgotten how many bishops and popes are in Dante’s hell. What Dante wrote is overlooked, in favor of merely having his masterpiece on their side. In the US, political parties always invoke the Founding Fathers, often with a limited understanding of them. The slave-holding Thomas Jefferson, to take one example, edited the New Testament to remove any notion of the divinity of Jesus, including his miracles. Nowadays, Jefferson couldn’t be elected in either political party… but, boy, can they conjure his ghost!

Advertisers, the Catholic Church, political parties… they all associate themselves with texts as things. The problem is that the writers’ ideas—which are worthy of consideration, discussion, even debate—do not enter the picture. In an earlier entry, I lamented the dearth of narratives in today’s society. Reification is also part of the problem.

In high school, we all knew insecure people who wanted to be part of the cool clique. They used cool slang, or dressed how the cool kids dressed. But it never worked. In their mouths, cool expressions were out of place. The uncool kids came across as awkwardly as a child wearing a suit for a wedding. People who reify a text behave just like them. They desperately hope that some of it coolness will rub off on them. But they miss the point about why the work is cool.

To answer the question at the start of this entry: Bob Marley. Seafood restaurant chains now market themselves with his songs… and he was calling for a revolution. Of course, the restaurant doesn’t want you to think of his politics. They just want you to think Bob Marley was cool. And since they’re playing his song, they want you to think they’re cool too. Just like a high school sophomore wearing a tie.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

You Keep Using that Word...

Despite appearances to the contrary, there are practical applications to the study of literature. Perhaps the most important is the deep knowledge of language. English contains up to a quarter million words. Imagine a tool calibrated to a quarter million settings; that’s a high degree of precision. The study of literature brings with it a greater awareness of the clarity of language. Conversely, it can teach the dangers of imprecise language. During December 2009, my blog entries dealt with the uses and abuses of language.


Probably the most important essay about language is George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” Although it is over 60 years old, many of his insights are still relevant to today—and in some respects more relevant than ever. The essay is extremely well written, so no summary will do it justice. Everyone should read it in its entirety.

Orwell writes about the staleness that characterizes contemporary writing. He points out how much writing is not about expressing good ideas clearly. Writers co-opt the ideas of other people, and therefore their muddled thoughts result in muddled writing. Orwell writes: “prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.” The result is language that is fundamentally meaningless.

Little has changed since 1946. We are inundated with language that’s meaningless. Throughout the past few months, people opposed to President Obama have accused him of being a “Fascist,” a “Nazi,” a “Socialist,” and a “Jihadist.” Each of those words has a precise meaning, which is incompatible with the others. The most common slur, “socialist,” actually is diametrically opposed to the others. Among those who slander President Obama, accuracy isn’t really the point. They are capitalizing on the emotional connotations of the terms with no thought given to their denotations.

The emotional content of words is often foremost these days. Take advertising, for instance. A bank recently tried to attract college students by describing itself as “extreme banking.” Extreme? Really?? Perhaps if they located their ATMs 15 feet above the ground, requiring customers to rock-climb up to them; or if their ATMs gave an electric jolt to randomly selected users. Needless to say, no activity could be described as “extreme” less than banking. And with the recent banking crisis still not resolved, do we really want banks to put themselves in the same category as bungee-jumping? Its marketing department selected that word for its emotional effect, with no regard given to its actual meaning. Indeed, in that context “extreme” meant absolutely nothing.

Sometimes advertisers choose words that contradict their message outright. Several years ago Coca-cola began a new marketing drive: “Coke, Everyday.” Coke’s advertising wizards were tapping into the renewed interest in the Sly and Family Stone song “Everyday People.” And, of course, they wanted people to drink Coke daily. There was just one problem: when written as one word, “everyday” means “ordinary” or “commonplace.” That’s not exactly a concept they’d want associated with their product.

The study of literature depends on the proper understanding of language. To understand irony, or to see the subtlety in poetry, the students need to know exactly what the words mean. That exactitude can be translated to their future writing.

But perhaps the perfect reply to thoughtless language does not come from literature. In the film The Princess Bride, one of the criminals kept repeating the word, “inconceivable.” One of his henchmen sagely responded, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” This is precisely the attitude most of us need to take.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Fairy Tales and Grown-Ups

I have already written about the problems of defining education strictly as job-preparation (see my September entry entitled “The Essentials”). But job-preparation is often what college-aged students expect out of education. Practical skills are self-explanatory but the humanities aren’t. What the humanities impart is something a bit deeper than job-preparation. In many respects they are life-lessons.

Take fairy tales, for instance. Despite the commonplace idea that fairy tales are for children, in their natural context, their listeners were adults. A person needs to have some experience of life to see the wisdom in fairy tales.

Take any authentic fairy tale (not one that was artificially composed as a narrative for children, such as a Dora the Explorer episode). For the sake of argument, Beauty and the Beast, which is found throughout Europe. Everyone knows the outline of the story: to protect her family a young girl finds herself in the household of an older, frightening creature. At first, she seems powerless, and he appears all-powerful. But in truth, she is the powerful one. Through her love, she transforms him into a kind man. This isn’t actually a story about magic at all. Arranged marriages were common throughout Europe until recent centuries. Beauty and the Beast is about a successful arranged marriage from the point of view of the wife—specifically, from the point of view of the wife long after the fact. Only someone who had already lived through it could tell the tale. It is the wisdom of the aged passed on to someone facing a similar difficulty.

Beauty and the Beast highlights a problem facing the humanities right now. Society has changed so much since the story was developed—is it even relevant? Should we still bother with a narrative about arranged marriages in a time when arranged marriages are no longer the norm? Of course, discussing Beauty and the Beast about only arranged marriages is highly reductive. The stories are more than simply what they’re about.

Take fairies. Opinions differ, but one common belief is that they were originally the minor gods of the pre-Christian nature religions. Again, our culture no longer follows a nature religion, by and large. Is there value in these tales? The word “fairy” is derived from the Latin word fata, which is etymologically related to fate (fatum). Conceptually speaking, fairies were forces that affected one’s destiny. Central to the stories is the interaction between will and destiny, not good and evil. An encounter with one changed the course of a person’s life. Sleeping Beauty was cursed to sleep for 100 years—that was bad. But then the prince broke the spell and she awakened—that was good. This is a teaching of fairy tales that is still relevant: what is a curse one moment can be a blessing later (and vice versa). One’s weakness is really one’s strength.

The humanities are essential to any education because they pass life experiences from one generation to the next. They are guides to life difficulties which youth are likely to face

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Other People’s Ideas, Part 2

In last week’s entry, I spotlighted other people’s arguments about the value of the humanities. For the sake of simplicity, I omitted one of the most prominent writers of the subject. Stanley Fish, a Dean Emeritus for the College of Liberal Arts (University of Chicago), writes a blog for the New York Times online. His writings deal with many topics, not just the humanities. Nonetheless, the state of the humanities recurs in his entries.

In one entry, Fish reviews Anthony Kronman’s book Education’s End (see my October entry entitled “Book Report” for my assessment of it). In it, Fish argues that the humanities need no justification because justification “confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance.” The humanities, he concludes, are their own good.

In a follow-up, Fish answers some of the responses to his blog and clarifies his opinions. When he wrote that the humanities are without justification, he is not saying that they are worthless. Rather, the humanities need no justification because they are valuable in their own right.

Fish also reviews Frank Donoghue’s book The Last Professors. In it, Donoghue views the current state of the humanities as the culmination of a century-long attack. (To be perfectly honest, I find Donoghue’s study to be too bleak. Just because some people criticized the humanities not mean that they changed the cultural assessment of them. As I try to show in some of my entries, the debates about the humanities go back millennia.)

In another entry, Fish assesses a “translation” of Milton’s Paradise Lost… into modern English. His lengthy assessment demonstrates that a simple summary of a classic—even a summary of equal length—is no substitute for the original.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Other People's Ideas

Because of the current recession, many people are discussing the place of the humanities in education. Recent articles in the New York Times and Daily Pennsylvanian provide good overviews of how the current environment is affecting the humanities. Here is a selection of other people’s arguments:

Stanley Romanstein notes that students who study the humanities score higher in math and reading assessments.

Bruce Watson asserts that the sciences describe the world, and the humanities explain it. Leon Wieseltier comments that the humanities change one’s perception of the world.

David Tebaldi writes about Clairborne Pell, the founder of the Pell Grants, and his positive view of the humanities.

Dario Diorio stresses that the humanities awaken the spirit and provide inspiration.

And Matthew Reisz reports on several people’s opinions of the value of the humanities in the UK.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Shameless Self-Promotion

This week the show "Arizona Illustrated" (KUAT, PBS channel 6, Tucson) did a show on the University of Arizona's Italian Program. This is, of course, good news for my Italian Program.

You can watch the show here.

In it, several of my students explain the importance of studying Italian, and foreign languages in general. Their comments are directly relevant to the question of the importance of the humanities.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Balloon Boy

The ability to think critically, to pose logical questions and challenge comfortable assumptions, is probably the single most important outcome of a university education. It is the very purpose for the paper-writing assignment that is the staple of almost every university class. Yet as exemplified by last week’s major news story, critical thinking is sorely lacking in American journalism.

By now the story is well known. A family in Colorado called police claiming that their 6-year old son was aboard a homemade balloon 10,000 feet in the sky. For hours, the news stations filmed the silvery balloon as it drifted. Eventually, it came down… and it turned out the son was hiding in the attic. Interviews and media frenzy followed, in which it came out that whole event was a hoax.

Perhaps the most important guide for critical thinking was the fourteenth-century William of Ockham. He developed a line of reasoning known as “Ockham’s razor”: when choosing among competing theories, the simplest is probably correct. So even before the hoax was revealed, what would “Ockham’s razor” have suggested? The family had spent weeks building a balloon, but after launch they couldn’t find the child: was he aboard the craft he’d accidentally launched, or somewhere on the ground? Of course, the simpler answer was the second—which turned out to be correct. But the media opted into the less logical, more sensational answer.

Assessment of a situation takes time, something the current 24-hour news cycle doesn’t allow for. In last week’s entry, I wrote about the need for time, and this story exemplifies my point perfectly. Undoubtedly the decision to air the story was instantaneous, but it takes time and calmness to assess the situation, and hence to formulate relevant questions: could a balloon of that size carry a child? Why didn’t the family have the safety features in place to prevent accidents (i.e., a fence, or a redundant launch protocol)? Is this really news? And perhaps most important, did the story even rise to the level of national importance?

The major news organizations spent several hours covering a lone balloon. What other information could have been provided in that amount of time? What other valid news stories could have been aired which might have served the populace better?

Uncritical judgments do no service to the society. What happened last week was a collective failure of critical thinking on the part of the media. Sadly, uncritical journalism has become the norm. Jon Stewart has made a career of skewering ill-informed newscasters who can’t discern fact from hyperbole.

Instruction in the humanities is an important aspect of learning critical thinking. Insightful readings can provide a model of rational analysis. Writing assignments teach students to express their opinions. More importantly, they remind students that valid opinions are based on facts, and facts can be ascertained only by asking the right questions. Over time students learn to challenge pat answers—the kind of pat answers comprising the anchors’ uninformed commentary as a balloon soared through the sky.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Post Script

In today's New York Times, Thomas Friedman writes about the need for new skills for workers. They can't just wait for new jobs to be "handed to them," but need to think creatively. Sound familiar? The humanities are about creativity, and viewing things in a new way.

Read Thomas Friedman's editorial here.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

It's About Time

It’s easy to blame other people. But what probably harms the humanities the most right now is not a decision that anyone made. No one made a case against the humanities that has now become widely accepted. No one unilaterally decided to stop teaching them, although budget priorities are often elsewhere. Instead, the damage to the humanities may have simply happened. Probably the most insidious harm afflicted against the humanities is the prevalent mode of life in the US.

In 2009, people are working ever increasing amounts of time. With the prevalence of technology, it is difficult to distinguish between time on the job from time off. If I’m at home with my family, but available to my employer via email and cell phone, am I truly at leisure? Worse, if I’m sitting at the dinner table, but my mind is on the day’s events, am I even present? Compounding that is the urban planning of North America, which throughout the twentieth-century was predicated on the idea of private ownership of cars. So when suburban sprawl is factored in, long commutes subtract further from private time. And none of this discussion includes the busyness of home life, such as household and family responsibilities, sleep, and time spent just plain vegging out.

The charge of elitism is often leveled against people who promote the arts. And elitism—let me stress—is absolutely unfounded. People of all walks of life can appreciate the humanities, and they do, from all backgrounds and differing levels of education (beyond the basic education which allows them to read and understand the works, of course—naturally, literary studies presuppose literacy).

But the one thing required of anyone who wants to enjoy the humanities is time. The humanities require time. People dabbling in other fields can read condensations. Amateur scientists can keep up to date by reading summaries of recent studies. A lot of non-fiction books can be understood just fine by reading reviews, sometimes only the dust jacket. In many areas, the gist of an idea is all that’s needed.

But the humanities are different. Reading a novel is absolutely not the same as reading its synopsis; Cliffs Notes can tell you what it’s about, but what it’s about isn’t really the point. What the arts provide is an experience. By reading a literary work you live the events. The same is true of viewing a work of art, or listening to a piece of music. To be sure, it is a vicarious experience, an experience of the imagination and not in the real world. But it is an experience nonetheless. To have the experience art provides requires time—free time.

It also requires brain power. Not necessarily smarts or an advanced degree, but the ability to process the artwork. A reader (or viewer, or listener) can set aside the time, but if she is stressed, exhausted, preoccupied, the experience will be diminished. Or ruined outright.

The humanities don’t only have a requirement, but they also make a demand. It’s not enough to read, the readers must find meaning in the works. Few stories are like Aesop’s fables, which end with a moral. Indeed, most great works of literature cannot be reduced to a one-dimensional meaning. But making sense of art is what makes art great. Again, this places an additional requirement of time and brain power.

The arts can adapt to today’s busy readership. They can be composed more simply, with more direct language, but that won’t fully address the problem. In many respects the problem is getting worse, as the notion of a “24/7” work schedule gains acceptance. As it grows, not only will the experience of the humanities be further degraded. Human experiences of all types will suffer.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Of Ducks and Women

The debates about the value of the humanities are as old as the humanities themselves. In his Republic (4th century BCE), Plato argues that in an ideal republic the arts would be banished. Part of his rationale is that they arouse the passions. The humanities play on people’s emotions leading them to behave in unwanted ways. This is, of course, an early iteration of the charge of the immorality of the arts. In the last several decades, the degeneracy of culture—and hence of the humanities—has been commonplace in political rhetoric in the United States.

An unusual defense of literature occurs in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (ca. 1351). The work, a classic of world literature, is comprised of one hundred tales. Boccaccio situates the tales within a frame story of ten youths who escaped the plague of 1348, and who amused each other by telling tales for ten days. But at the start of the fourth day, the author breaks into the narrative and offers a defense of his art.

Boccaccio claims that some people have read his tales and have accused him of immorality. The presence of the defense indicates that his tales probably circulated individually as he composed them. And in this instance the suggestion of immorality is not unfounded. The last tale of the third day consists of a particularly saucy story, involving an old hermit who teaches a young woman to serve God by “putting the devil into hell.” Ahem.

At the start of day four, Boccaccio does not argue about the charges against him, nor does he apologize for his bawdy tales. The defense of his art consists of yet another narrative—yes, the Decameron actually contains one hundred and one tales. He tells of Filippo Balducci, a saintly man who had decided to become a hermit after his wife’s death. Now advanced in years, he must journey into the city with his son, whom he had raised exclusively in a cavern. Balducci’s son is amazed at all the new sights of the city—the tall palaces, the fine clothing, and all the hustle and bustle—but when a group of young women passes by, the old man commands him to lower his eyes.

“They are evil,” he tells his son, who had never before seen a woman nor knew of their existence.

“Father, they are more beautiful than the angels painted in our cave. What are they?”

Trying to prevent any lustful thoughts in his son, he responds, “They are ducks.”

“Please father,” the son begs, “can’t we take home a duck?!”

Boccaccio then notes how powerful nature is. Even this young man, who was raised in a purely holy environment, immediately felt desire for opposite sex.

Boccaccio apparently had Plato in mind when he composed the story. Filippo does everything in his power to curb his son’s natural urges. He even struggles against language—the very stuff of literature—by deliberately using the wrong word. By not naming the women, he hopes to prevent sexual attraction. Yet he fails. With the tale Boccaccio rebuts the charge of that the humanities result in immoral acts. The passions exist naturally, whether people talk about them or not. To castigate, control, or even ban literature outright would have no effect on people’s actual behavior. The story of Filippo Balducci exemplifies how culture is powerless in the face of nature.

I am always reminded of this tale when I hear about “abstinence-only” sexual education. Much “abstinence-only” education is predicated on the idea of not teaching facts about birth control; if people don’t know about responsible sexuality, the thinking goes, they’ll be too scared to engage in any sexual behaviors at all. I have no problem with instructors preaching abstinence, but they have a duty to teach contraception and disease-prevention. Instead, the purveyors of “abstinence-only” are acting like Filippo Balducci, hoping to prevent sexual activity altogether by controlling the language about sex.

Numerous studies are now showing that “abstinence-only” is about as unsuccessful as Filippo Balducci. A recent study shows that teens who learn “abstinence-only” are just as likely to have intercourse, but less likely to take necessary precautions. As in the case of Filippo’s son, even someone entirely ignorant of the language of sex still has sexual impulses. The last time I checked, internal drives led teens to sexual exploration not literary works. Silence and misinformation will do nothing to stave off sexual activity. Call it a duck if you like or call it nothing at all, even go so far as declaring a “culture war,” but human nature is still in full force.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Book Report

Many people have been discussing the merits of the humanities. One recent noteworthy book is Anthony T. Kronman’s Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (Yale, 2007). Kronman’s thesis is that academics need to get back to teaching the fundamental question of the humanities, the meaning of life. It’s not that great literary works provide an answer, but that they reformulate the question in different ways, thereby challenging facile, comfortable solutions.

Kronman believes that as universities focused more on research, humanists became absorbed with the minutiae of literary study. How the literary tradition enriches everyone’s lives is no longer taught in the humanistic classroom. Furthermore, literary research turned increasingly impenetrable, so that the reading public could no longer understand cutting-edge publications. A growing percentage of the population, therefore, ceased caring about the humanities.

Kronman’s ideas are worthy of consideration, and it is not my intention to argue directly against them. Instead, I want to illustrate the challenges inherent to Kronman’s thesis. Taken to its logical conclusion, literary classes should teach only those works which address the meaning of life, either directly or indirectly (or some variant on the question like “what is the life worth living?” or “how should people find meaning in their lives?”). Don’t get me wrong: many great works of literature touch on these philosophical questions, and challenge the readers’ own comfortable assumptions. These are works often at the heart of the canon and hence of the curriculum. But what about works that simply don’t rise to that level?

Many works of literature simply do not deal with the Truth—The Meaning of Life—or even raise questions that reflect on it. Rather, they deal with truths, finding meaning in particular experiences. Lyric poetry, for instance, often reveals the deeper significance in mundane experiences. The poetic techniques convey the everyday in almost mystical terms, thereby compelling the readers to see it in a new light.

Richard Wilbur’s poem, “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” is a text that illustrates the profound meaning of a mundane experience. My brief synopsis won’t do it justice. It relates how the squeaky pulley of a laundry line awakened the poet. Half asleep, he sees that “the morning air is all awash with angels. / Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses, / some are in smocks: but truly there they are.” The poem is a masterpiece in describing the first moments of the morning. I’m just not sure that it deals with the Meaning of Life per se; discussing it in such a manner would be a stretch. But it beautifully encapsulates an experience most people have had. Before the responsibilities of the day come rushing in, the residual dream-state allows us to view our surroundings in different—special—ways.

Yet art cannot simply be treated as a delivery-device for philosophical questions. Aesthetics are not mere sugar coating, which will allow readers to swallow otherwise bitter discussions of the Truth. Wilbur’s poem doesn’t merely talk about a particular experience. By versifying it, Wilbur allows the readers to re-experience it themselves. Would anyone suggest that lyric poetry like this shouldn’t be taught?

Furthermore, even works that purport to convey the Truth can’t be reduced to just their message. In postwar Italy, when the Communists were highly popular, novelist Elio Vittorini publicly broke with the Italian Communist Party. The party leader, Palmiro Togliatti, insisted that the Italian Communists should follow the Stalinist model regarding artists; that is to say, writers should rigidly toe the party line and only convey orthodox communist ideology. Whatever we might think of Leninist-Marxism, it did provide its adherents with an answer to the question of the Meaning of Life. In his “Letter to Togliatti” (1947) Vittorini, an avowed socialist, asserted the autonomy of the arts. The role of the artist, he argued, was not merely to “play the fife for the revolution.” Following his example, numerous socialist artists demonstrated their independence from the party, giving rise to the Neorealist movement in the 1940s and 50s.

Vittorini and the Neorealists demonstrated that creativity couldn’t be constrained to the Truth or truths, even those espoused by its own authors. Something about creative fantasy makes art transcend its messages, even the most profound. Indeed, those historical periods and societies that enforced a particular form of the Truth—the Catholic Counterreformation, Soviet Socialism—rarely produced great works of art. In any of its numerous incarnations, agitprop makes claims to communicate the Truth, but it almost never amounts to more than its message. It is quickly forgotten and rightly so.

Kronman’s argument is subtler than I give it credit here. He is right to stress that literature teachers should raise relevant philosophical questions. That is part of what it means to be a good teacher. But no discussion of art should be reduced to any single dimension. Great art raises numerous questions, many of them worthy to be taught and studied.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Golden Rule

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” —Matthew 7:12

This well-known teaching—to the point of being a cliché—encapsulates a deep truth that is central to the question of the humanities.

One of the difficulties facing the humanities is the medium itself. Literature is, by and large, fiction. That is to say, its authors employ imagination to describe the world. We can acknowledge, of course, that the authors’ imaginations are themselves grounded in observation and culturally relevant facts. Nevertheless in our science-dominated culture, many people look suspiciously at the accuracy of fantasy as a vehicle for the truth.

The subject of the biblical passage, compassion, is easily misunderstood. Put simply, compassion is not an emotion. The emotional response to suffering—that impulse to weep with someone else—is not compassion. It’s pity. Just like any other humane emotion there is nothing wrong with pity. But Jesus didn’t extol pity for a reason. Like any other emotion, it is a purely instinctive reaction. No thought goes into pity, so pity doesn’t transform the woman who experiences it. Pity doesn’t lead one to a deeper understanding of another person or his predicament.

So what is compassion? Jesus tells us to engage in an imaginative act: if I were that person, how would I want to be treated? What follows are the logical consequences of that presupposition. He tells us to inform our imagination with facts from our experiences, from what we know to be true of the world, and factual reasoning. Jesus commands people, in effect, to perform a type of thought experiment. They then should derive any ethical conclusions from that experiment.

Christianity is not unique in this regard. Most major religions have some teaching similar to the Golden Rule. Buddhism makes a central tenet of compassion. But the biblical passage not only promotes compassion, it also explains how to achieve it. Compassion is an act of imagination, which is informed by experience.

This leads back to the humanities. The arts are nothing if not thought experiments. What if…? Authors and artists employ fantasy to pose questions, and then use their knowledge of the world to follow those questions to certain conclusions. Attentive readers, furthermore, are led to see, at the very least, the point of view of someone in those positions. Readers are induced to experience compassion, and in the process they are transformed; they transcend—momentarily, subtly, but no less validly—their previous self-centered experience of the universe.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Essentials

The art of reading as of learning is this:
to retain the essential, to forget the non-essential.
—Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, p. 14

Few people today would willingly agree with Hitler about anything. But when it comes to educational priorities, what should be taught and what should be cut, many people unwittingly share Hitler’s opinions about essentials and non-essentials.

The film October Sky (1999) portrayed the childhood of Homer Hickam, who grew up to become a scientist for NASA. Based on Hickam’s memoir, it relates his growing fascination with rocketry following the launch of Sputnik. His interest in outer space conflicted with the ideas of many of his educators. Living in a West Virginia town dominated by coal mining, few of his teachers wanted to encourage his “hobby.” The town’s chief industry was the coalmine, he was the son of a miner, and everyone in his position ended up working in the mine. Why should they teach him something he’ll never use? As educators, they only needed to instruct him in the essentials, namely those subjects that would make him a successful miner.

Before Brown v. The Topeka Board of Education the argument for segregation was based in part on similar reasoning. Since people thought African-Americans were congenitally predisposed for manual labor, they reasoned that they be taught in a different manner from Whites. Their education should consist solely of the essentials—practical information necessary for careers as laborers. For millennia, men used the same line of reasoning to give girls substandard educations or to deny them education entirely. Women were nothing more than baby-makers, so knowledge of reading and writing were inessential for them.

Sadly, the predominant educational philosophy in the United States still consists of variants on this argument: education is essentially about the skills necessary for an adult life, in particular job preparation. That’s it. Nothing else. Few people would admit to holding such a belief, but the next time there’s a budget crisis, see what gets cut as inessential. The budget priorities reflect the ideology that education consists primarily of job preparation. Nowadays education is no longer about creating new miners or manual laborers; but creating the next generation of mid-level managers is no less inhumane. It reduces people to their mere stations in life. Education in the United States is rarely about nourishing the individual.

There is an alternative to the reductive view of education. To express it, I want to refer to a biblical passage. The unnamed prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair is traditionally identified as Mary Magdalene. Prostitution was an abject situation, which brought with it a great deal of social disdain—she was just a whore! But Jesus brought her into his inner circle and after the resurrection he appeared first before her. This is a powerful statement. Jesus was saying, in effect, what you do—or did—does not define you. No human being is just something… just a prostitute… just a woman… just a miner… just an African-American… or just an employee. By treating Mary Magdalene as valuable, Jesus acknowledged that all human beings transcend their stations in life. There is an inner essence to people that cannot be constrained to one single socially determined circumstance. Whatever their status, they possess dignity, they have a story, and they hold a perspective that warrants consideration.

This is where the humanities re-enter the discussion. No one would argue against teaching the basics. But they are considered basics for a reason. Education is about developing the whole person, not simply her or his eventual job title. To do so, it must pose deep questions. It needs to reveal the great ideas of world culture, and transmit the joys of the aesthetic experiences of art and music. It also must challenge comfortable assumptions of life and the world, and thus demonstrate to the students that there are other possibilities to the social order and predominant teachings around them. Education should treat its students as individuals, and give flight to their souls.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Asinine Fever Epidemic

Right now there is great concern about swine flu. But our society also is plagued by an epidemic of asinine fever.

Toward the end of Carlo Collodi’s novel Pinocchio (1881), the puppet once again disobeys Geppetto. Instead of going to school as he’d promised, Pinocchio steals away to the Land of Games with his friend Lampwick. After five months of non-stop play, a terrible thing happens: Pinocchio and Lampwick grow asses’ ears. They’ve come down with asinine fever, and like all the other boys in the Land of Games, they completely transform into donkeys.

Collodi’s message is clear enough; those boys who ignore their studies are condemned to be asses. An ass, of course, symbolizes ignorance. In the class-structure of nineteenth-century Italy, however, it was also a social metaphor. When Italy was a predominantly agrarian society donkeys were beasts of burden. Collodi cautioned his young readers not to disregard their education, or else they’d spend their lives as menial laborers.

And in fact, that’s precisely what happens to Collodi’s Pinocchio. Eventually he’s sold to a circus, but when he breaks his leg, he suffers the fate of any working animal in the nineteenth century. His owner ties a rock around his neck and hurls him into the ocean. Fortunately for him, the fish eat the flesh off his skeleton, which consists of… a wooden puppet.

So Pinocchio reflected the realities of nineteenth-century Italian society. But is it still relevant in the twenty-first century? When Disney turned Collodi’s tale to a cartoon in 1939, one of the few scenes they kept was the Land of Games. Disney rendered it as an amusement park with roller coasters, carousels, and fun houses. Disney’s interpretation of the Land of Games is an indictment of the modern entertainment industry. Entertainment is synonymous with amusement, which is also synonymous with diversion. The etymologies of all the words convey the idea that entertainment is really a distraction. A distraction from what, we might ask.

Nowadays, entertainment is everywhere. But the entertainment industry is not about the real world, about hard choices and complexity. It holds a pacifying mirror up to its viewers, telling them that a simplistic understanding is all that’s necessary. Evildoers do evil because they’re evil; but not to worry because eventually the hero will dispatch them with a one-liner. The consumers of mass media entertainment delude themselves that they are knowledgeable of the world. The real result is a pseudo-sophistication built on trite aphorisms and wish fulfillment. It is, in short, a game. And its worldview has permeated even the news industry. TV journalists routinely speak in platitudes and simplified language. During the last presidential campaign, they chided Candidate Obama for his “nuanced” answers, forgetting that the world is, in fact, nuanced. The next time a shark attacks a swimmer, see how long it takes before the anchor describes the animal as a “mindless killing machine.” Do they even know that they are citing the movie Jaws? The institution designed to inform the citizenry has reduced itself to the intellectual level of summer blockbusters.

Yet diversion can take many forms. Nowadays people are more distracted than ever by electronic gadgetry. It seems that text messages, cell phones, Twittering and other social media are everywhere. On the surface it appears that people are continuously hard at work. But at least one recent study shows that people who “multitask” actually perform their activities worse than they believe. They’re not so much working—not in any real sense—as turning their attention away from their immediate circumstances. Other researchers recently demonstrated that people who compose text messages behind the wheel are as dangerous as drunk drivers. That study is disturbing for the safety of our roadways, of course. But it also suggests another troubling conclusion: doesn’t this mean that the people who spend a lot of time “multitasking” are living much of their lives as if drunk? Listen closely and you can hear the braying right now.

For decades the United States has been the economically dominant force in the world. But nothing lasts forever, and we are currently in the worst recession in decades. And what about Collodi’s Lampwick? What happened to him? Just before Pinocchio transforms into a boy, he resolves once and for all to work hard. He takes employment turning a mill to replace a dying donkey. Pinocchio goes to him and comforts him as he breathes his last. Lampwick, like all the other boys from the Land of Games, dies an ass.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

'Nuff Said

It is well known that Americans are among the least educated when it comes to foreign languages. According to one statistic, only about a quarter of all US citizens can speak a foreign language proficiently. There are many factors as to why that occurs, of course.

One unfortunate side effect of that low number is that many people actively disdain the study of foreign language. After all, world business is conducted in English, they say—why should I study their language? One of the basic assumptions against the study of foreign language is its impracticality. A small percentage of the population gets the opportunity to travel extensively to another country, so why should anyone else go to the trouble? One blogger in 2004 wrote: “The utility of having American children devoting years mastering a language other than English is rather dubious from any utilitarian standard I can think of.”

The futility of teaching foreign languages is summed up in another quote:

It is impossible to understand, for example, why millions of people in the course of the years must learn two or three foreign languages, only a fraction of which they can make use of later, and hence most of them forget entirely, for of a hundred thousand pupils who learn French for example barely two thousand will have a serious use of this knowledge later, while ninety-eight thousand in the whole further course of their life will not find themselves in a position to make practical use of what they once learned. They have in their youth, therefore, devoted thousands of hours to a subject which later is without value and meaning for them. And the objection that this material belongs to general education is unsound, since it could only be upheld if people retained all through their life what they had learned. So in reality, because of the two thousand people for whom the knowledge of this language is profitable, ninety-eight thousand must be tormented for nothing and made to sacrifice valuable time.

If you’re inclined to agree, you might want to learn the source of the quote, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf (1923: p. 419-20). You might also reflect on the ultimate outcome of his disdain for the knowledge of languages and cultures other than his own.

‘Nuff said.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Pythagoras Lied

Probably the most important aspect to the sciences is quantification, that is, the ability to transform data into (and out of) numbers. What many scientists may not realize is the idea of quantification comes from the ancient philosopher Pythagoras. Pythagoras believed that numbers revealed the true nature of the cosmos. Given the prevalence of science in our culture, the notion of quantification is pervasive. We have become a Pythagorean society because virtually everything, it seems, can be turned into a number. A person does not need to employ good writing or clear reasoning, merely the cold, hard statistics to get something done. There is one simple problem with this perspective, however: Pythagoras lied.

Of course there are many areas that cannot really be quantified. One of them is the importance of the humanities. Oh sure, we could take a poll and ask people to rate the humanities, but that would only gauge public opinion, not true importance. We could assess earnings from the publishing companies, but that would rate sales. We could look at enrollment data from universities, but that would evaluate the interest of students. So how can we understand the true importance of the humanities?

One example of the importance of the humanities comes from Primo Levi. His famous memoir of the Nazi Holocaust, Se questo è un uomo (“If this is a man”) was translated with the unfortunate English title Survival at Auschwitz. It is unfortunate because, as the original Italian suggests, he describes the horrors of “The Final Solution” as a process of dehumanization.

One episode is key to Levi’s memoir. Since he’d had training as a chemist, he worked in Auschwitz as a pharmacist (yes, Auschwitz had a pharmacy). At one point a French prisoner nicknamed Pikolo noticed he was Italian, and asked him about an episode from Dante’s Inferno. In a striking passage, Dante meets Ulysses in hell. Ulysses tells of his final voyage, during which he inspires his men with his oratorical skills. He tells his men that they have a duty to explore the world, reminding them that they were not born to live as animals. The parallels with Levi’s situation are striking: he too was in a type of hell, reduced to the level of beasts.

Ulysses’ speech is so famous that Italian school children learn to recite it from memory. But at that moment in the Death Camp, Levi could not remember it. And his failure to recall Dante’s verses caused him great anxiety. He spends the next couple of hours piecing together the portions he could remember. Imagine: Levi was in Auschwitz, with all its horrors and brutalities—a true hell on Earth if ever there was one—but for a short while he got caught up in the inability to recite Dante.

He was in Auschwitz, for crying out loud—why would he care about poetry? Simple: to remember Dante momentarily negated the Nazis’ dehumanization of him. Animals don’t have poetry or the arts, but people do. It was a means to reassert his almost-lost humanity. His inability to recite it at that moment elicited the doubt that perhaps the Nazis were right about him. Instead of taking place on a battlefield, his struggle took place in his memory, indeed within his very soul. To us now it seems strangely trivial, but to recite Dante in that context would be an act of rebellion.

Here, pay attention Pikolo. Open your ears and your mind, I need for you to understand:

“Consider your birth:
you were not born to live as brutes,
but to follow virtue and learning”

It was as if I’d heard it for the first time: like a trumpet blast, like the voice of God. For a moment I forgot who I am and where I am.

Here then is the failure of Pythagorean thought. How could someone quantify Dante in that moment for Primo Levi? At that instant, the great poet was a potent reminder that Levi was not a sub-human entity worthy only of death. Dante’s poetry was beyond any numerical value. And it still is. It always is. Levi’s adherence to Dante is dramatic given his inhumane circumstances, but throughout the world there are millions of similar stories like his when poetry makes a difference to someone.

Numbers can tell a lot about human conditions, but they say nothing about the human condition. On the contrary, they have a strange de-humanizing effect on the persons involved. Perhaps the most telling indictment of Pythagoras was uttered by another twentieth-century monster, Joseph Stalin, who proclaimed: “The death of one man is a tragedy, but the death of millions is a statistic.”

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Changing Lives

One of the difficulties for the humanities is that the benefits of other fields are so obvious. Engineers construct bridges and dams, pharmacists dispense medicines, and scientists make new discoveries. Business graduates receive substantial starting salaries. These are all tangible benefits. So what are the practical applications of the humanities? What benefits to society does the study of literature, the arts, history, and languages bring?

One cliché about the humanities is that they change your life. And frankly, they do. Wrap yourself around a literary classic—really delve into it, so that its worldview becomes your own—and it will change you. Sometimes, that change will be subtle, and sometimes it will be a bolt from the blue.

Perhaps the oldest classic of the Western canon is Homer’s Iliad. The story begins with a dispute over the spoils of war: for complicated reasons, the king Agamemnon needs to return the slave Chryseis, part of his spoils, to the Trojans. Agamemnon refuses out of the desire not to be humiliated before his men—-a king, after all, should have the most spoils of all. When he relents, he summarily takes as recompense the slave of his most powerful warrior, Achilles. Achilles, now humiliated before his fellow Greeks, simply refuses to fight, and, to summarize the rest, the Greeks nearly lose the war.

So much has changed since Homer's time that it's tempting to see his story as irrelevant to 2009. Spoils of war and the heroic ethos of the classical world are entirely foreign nowadays.

But what hasn't changed are the desire to save face, and the feelings of humiliation when face is lost—both emotions born from the prideful embrace of one’s social status. And Homer illustrates how the inability to face those feelings head-on can cause one to make self-defeating choices.

Business schools and technical colleges teach vital new areas. But they don’t demand that their students change, that they question their most basic assumptions, or that they learn and really comprehend human motivations, particularly their own. So last November, as the automobile industry sought the financial support of the federal government, the otherwise bright CEOs of the three largest car manufacturers each flew to Washington DC in their private jets. Like Agamemnon, as captains of industry, they had to maintain their prestige in the face of adversity… and like Agamemnon’s refusal to cede Chryseis, it was precisely the wrong thing to do: they were publicly pilloried for it.

Similarly, after the banks got the largest bailout in US history, people were scandalized to find out that executives still received huge bonuses. Again, like Agamemnon, who took Achilles’ spoils to assert his sovereignty, they tried to reassert their supremacy, as if they had records of stellar performances and did not need to beg for bailout funds. With no reason for self-reflection, they, too, did precisely the wrong thing.

I like to think of the benefits of the humanities in the most un-human terms. Imagine a computer. You can put more information into it. You can update it. But at a certain point, there’s an upper limit on its performance. To get more out of it, it simply needs to be different. That's where the importance of "changing people's lives" becomes seriously relevant.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Humanities and Mass Media

“Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.” —George Orwell, 1984

For at least a decade now, numerous humanists have decried the “crisis in the humanities.” To many people, the idea of a “crisis in the humanities” seems counter-intuitive. The entertainment industry earns greater profits and has a wider reach than perhaps ever before. How can there be a crisis?

But quantity, as we all know, is no reflection of quality. I can fill up on potato chips, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve had a complete meal. On a life-long diet only of potato chips, I’d become bloated and obese, but at the same time my body would be starving for many essential nutrients. In a sense, our mass media-dominated culture is itself on a diet of potato chips: temporarily sated, but not fed in any real way.

I’ll use myself as an example. I grew up on rock and roll music. One of my earliest memories is the cover of my brother’s Meet the Beatles album (I must have been about two). The sound of an electric guitar still gets my heart racing. But for almost a decade now, I’ve pretty much abandoned rock and roll music. Here’s why: rock and roll speaks to the desires and anxieties of youth. It has no application to my life now. Rock and roll all night? I’m 43-years old, married, with a 6-year old daughter. I’m asleep by 10:15pm. And party every day? I have a satisfying day job and responsibilities.

What am I supposed to get out of rock and roll anymore? What is a repeatedly divorced twenty-something going to tell me—who have been happily married for fifteen years—about love? What insights will I gain from a group of teenagers in the latest “boy band” about sex? They probably don’t even know what a clitoris is!

What I’ve said about rock songs can just as easily be applied to most mass media forms. I love spectacle as much as the next person, but a blockbuster about giant robots saving the planet has no relevance for my life. As George Lucas was completing his second Star Wars trilogy, he explained that he wanted to explain the origins of evil, of how Darth Vader became Darth Vader. The only lesson I learned was not to trust a Sith—ok, I can do that, but it’s not a message I can readily put to use. Page-turners are a good way to pass the time, but I already know that criminals deserve to be caught and punished. All these types of mass media are potato chips, which are fine now and then, but my soul needs a steak. I know I’m not alone in that hunger, either.

I began this essay with a quotation from George Orwell’s distopia 1984. In his novel, the totalitarian system deliberately reduces the number of words in order to eliminate the possibility of freethinking. In our mass media-saturated society, we are living an analogous situation. The number of words hasn’t gone down, but the number of authentic narratives has. The common references we can make to astute observations about people, society, the world—ourselves—are disappearing. We can pass the time watching computer graphics and hearing electronic sounds, but in the end they mean nothing. Human beings need meaning.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The True Value of the Humanities

The real problem facing the humanities is the difficulty of seeing its practical benefits. What purpose does it serve, people wonder, to study literature?

Recently, however, a public event occurred that succinctly illustrates the very real value of the humanities to society. In late October 2008, following the failure of several giant financial institutions, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan addressed Congress. In a highly revealing statement, Greenspan expressed astonishment at the short-sightedness of the banks. He said: “Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholder’s equity—myself especially—are in a state of shocked disbelief.”

Alan Greenspan is a highly thoughtful and well-educated man, of course. But his statement reveals a profound flaw in his worldview. As an economist, he applies principles of the market to human behavior, expecting that the collective desire for maximum profit would induce self-control. His admission of shock illustrates that in formulating his theories Greenspan ignored the humanities. In short, he didn’t read Dante.

The great Italian poet Dante portrays the afterlife in his masterpiece The Divine Comedy. In the most famous portion, hell, he systematizes all human evil. He broadly divides the sins into three headings: fraud, violence, and incontinentia or lack of self control. The last category, incontinentia, is comprised of lust, gluttony, and greed. While fraud represents the use of intellect for perverse ends, and violence destroys the bonds of human brotherhood, the sins of incontinentia are simply natural drives left unchecked.

At the outset of his work Dante allegorizes incontinentia with the image of a she-wolf: she is frighteningly skinny, but after eating she is only hungrier. Through the symbol of the she-wolf Dante makes an insightful statement about our natural human impulses. Lust, gluttony and greed are not about reaching a specific goal; they are not desires that disappear once they have been fulfilled. Here, then, is one truth about the human condition that only the humanities can offer.

Why do so many lottery winners end up spending themselves into bankruptcy within a year or two? How much money can possibly be enough? Why do so many people with doting spouses have wandering eyes? Why do restaurants serve ridiculously large proportions, often followed by equally oversized desserts? With his she-wolf, Dante offers a disquieting answer. We human beings delude ourselves that happiness will come once we acquire that one object we want, whether it’s a flashier car, a more attractive lover, or a richer chocolate cake. But we are mistaken. That’s the hellish thing about base desires: the things we want are not really the point. As we attain them, we simply want something else, and the process starts all over again. Like the she-wolf who feels greater hunger after eating, when it comes to sex, food and money, human beings want more as they acquire more.

In a nutshell, had Alan Greenspan, economists and policymakers considered Dante’s dark view of the human heart, they would not feel shock that the banks did not act with self-restraint. Greed, as the film Wall Street reminded us, is the motivating factor in market decisions. But greed is also fundamentally about being out of control, an ever-present hunger that no amount of money, however large, will truly satisfy. Lacking a humanistic element to their worldview, economists like Greenspan never examined the nature of the primary motivation of financial decisions, greed.

So policy was set with the unquestioned belief that uncontrolled greed might result in self-restraint. In the drive to satisfy an insatiable desire, inevitably the leaders of banks behaved irresponsibly. To stave off an even greater crisis Congress then needed to intervene with bail-outs.

And now we have a very specific answer to that age-old question: what are the humanities worth? About $700 billion and counting.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Human Beings from the Inside

There are, of course, many things to learn from the study of literature. Great literature sometimes deals in the Truth, but more often it deals in truths: observations about life, society, people and events. I like to think of literature as providing a map to the human heart: what motivates people or scares them, or what affects them.

In this respect, it might be easy to view the study of literature as if an imperfect human science, like sociology or psychology. But it is, in fact radically different.

Fundamentally, sociology deals with populations. It can reduce the activity of a group to a statistic, but it cannot examine the inner life of an individual.

Like literature, psychology deals with individuals from the inside, but its fundamental focus is on pathologies. It examines the behaviors of the ill, and works to treat their illnesses.

As valuable as both sociology and psychology are, they do not examine the human soul, not really. Evidence? Influential psychological theorists, like Carl Jung and Bruno Bettelheim drew many insights from their patients, but also from the folklore (Jung, mythologies; Bettelheim, fairy tales). And Sigmund Freud mined literature for its insights, from Greek mythology to Leonardo da Vinci. Surely their patients provided them ample factual evidence for their theories—so why would they make recourse to literature?

Great authors are keen observers of human activity. In literature, they use their creativity to convey those observations in realistic ways. Even when dealing with extreme characters, great literature gets inside their heads and makes their actions understandable. But because it deals in narrative, literature does not portray the human soul in a vacuum—as if the soul can be reduced to a few key drives, with social forces or historical events playing a minimal role. Literature instead shows individuals interacting with a society, historical period, or other similarly flawed people. In great literary works, human beings are never simply islands unto themselves, nor mere automatons motivated by external forces. It is, instead, a complex dance of inner-motivations and external forces, both at play in the destiny of an individual.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Say "Ciao"

As I mentioned in my initial entry to this blog, the administration of my university announced today that it would make “differentiated cuts” among the different faculties. Those fields that the administration views as “essential to economic development” will be spared; those that aren’t—in its imperfect estimation—will bear the brunt of the cuts. What that means in practice is that the areas already starved by the administration’s budgets, like the Humanities, will take on the lion’s share of the cuts.

But the administration’s reasoning is woefully flawed: the Humanities do indeed contribute to economic development. I’ll give one simple example from my own field of Italian to show how flawed their thinking is.

Earlier this year, Italian automaker Fiat announced that it had finalized the take-over of Chrysler. In the US, the news of the merger was presented as part of the broader economic crisis facing our country these days. Undoubtedly it is that, but I also see it as prime example of the importance of learning foreign languages, in this case Italian. As Italian money pours into the American auto industry—followed inevitably by Italian managers—people employed in Chrysler management will need to brush up on their Italian. Indeed, in the future anyone involved in the US auto industry, who might find themselves doing business with Fiat / Chrysler, might want to dust off their Italian phrasebooks. While Italy has always been a member of the G-8 group of highly industrialized nations, in the US Italian has just re-established itself as an important language in world business.

So to any future business-school graduates who might find themselves employed in Detroit in the future, I say this: good luck brown-nosing your bosses after only completing Italian 102 in your freshman year. And so there won’t be any doubt: yes, they will be talking about you behind your backs.

Why the Humanities Matter

I am a professor Italian, which means I teach the humanities (language, literature and culture). Just today, the administration of my university announced that it will make "differential budget cuts," meaning that not all colleges will bear the same cuts. Its criteria were based on, among other things, "economic impact" to the state. Of course, at my university, the Humanities will bear the highest cut.

What that means in practice is that those areas that are already well-funded will bear the smallest cuts, while those that have been starved over the years will bear a greater cut.

And while it's true that the Humanities do not prepare students for a career the way business colleges do, to say we have no economic impact is FALSE. After all, we teach students how to write, how to read critically, and how to speak foreign languages. Is there no economic impact if American students write poorly and are set out in the world?

But I've realized that the problem is that we, in the Humanities, do not present ourselves well to the public. The public at large does not know what we do, or why it's important. And that's why I started this blog. I hope, in the coming years, to explain to a general readership some of the importance of the humanities. I know that there are others who do this work, most of whom will do a better job than I; BUT most of what I've seen is for insiders--for other people who already accept the value of the Humanities as a given. It's preaching to the proverbial choir. I want, instead, to reach a literate but non-specialized audience!