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.

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