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!