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.