Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Faustian Bargain

I started this blog about a year ago, when I anticipated more hard times for my program at the University of Arizona. I decided to try to impact, in my own small way, the public perception of the humanities. So far, the hard times haven't come my way (knock on wood). But on October 1, 2010, George M. Philip, President of SUNY Albany, decided to close a number of humanities programs at his university: French, Italian, Russian, Classics, and Theatre.

Since then, there has been quite a buzz about the importance of the humanities in the general media. Stanley Fish wrote about it in his posting for The New York Times, entitled "The Crisis of the Humanities Officially Arrives."

This led to a discussion in The New York Times' online forum, "Do Colleges Need French Departments."

Both of the items from The New York Times make good cases for the state of the humanities and of the necessity of the humanities. But probably the best I've read is in a letter entitled "A Faustian Bargain." In it, the author, Gregory A. Petsko, makes an exquisite case--satirically--about the importance of the humanities.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

In Defense of Laughter, pt. 3

The Hangover is probably the most moral film in a decade. Seriously.

From classical times through the High Renaissance, comedies were more scabrous than any R-rated film out there. Niccolò Machiavelli (yes, that Machiavelli!) wrote several comedies in addition to his political treatises. In Mandragola (The Mandrake Root) Machiavelli told the story about a man who yearns to have sex with a woman, Lucrezia. The problem is that she’s highly moral. He succeeds because her husband is a nitwit who wants to have heirs. He convinces the husband that Lucrezia’s “sterility” can be cured if she drinks a draft of the mandrake root. But, he tells the husband, there’s a catch—the first man she sleeps with after taking the draft will be fatally poisoned. Now, if only they could find some man to do the job…

Although it was written in 1518, Mandragola is probably too lurid even for today’s R-rated comedies. And yet, it is a moral work.

Machiavelli was a highly educated man, and he based his comedies on the classical works of Juvenal, Horace, and Thucidides. He also assimilated their justification of comedies. The classical writers posited that comedies were a moral art. How is that possible?

They developed the notion of “the smart reader” (or: watcher) of comedies. Basically, they assumed that their watchers were smarter than any of the characters they put on stage. The watchers would thus recognize the characters’ idiocy, small-mindedness, and vice. Being smart, the watchers would reject the characters’ behaviors. In other words, the playwrights did not need to put a “mouthpiece” on stage commenting on the characters’ immorality. The smart watchers would just know not to behave in a similar manner.

And, freed from having to tell their watchers what to think, the classical and Renaissance writers could push their stories to the very limits. The results were stories that still elicit howls of laughter centuries—even millennia—after they were written.

So as you wheeze with laughter while the characters of The Hangover try to reconstruct their wild night, remember that the film is good for your soul. After all, you wouldn’t want to find Mike Tyson’s tiger in your hotel bathroom too, would you?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

In Defense of Laughter, pt. 2

Don’t panic! Laugh!

In the last entry, I talked about how Western culture associates laughter with pleasure, and hence with sin. So for centuries, the West has expressed some unease with laughter. But there is more to the picture than that.

From an artistic perspective, our culture’s suspicion towards laughter results in a similarly negative assessment of an entire genre, comedy. Notice how infrequently comedies win the “Best Picture” Oscar. Many people accept the idea that comedy is not the vehicle for expressing truths about the human condition; that’s the function of drama. But in reality, comedies can be expressive of deeper truths. By writing this, I don’t mean “comedy-but-with-a-message” movies, where the violins swell while Robin Williams tears up and intones platitudes. No, I mean that really funny comedies, like The Hangover, themselves express a deeper truth.

How is this possible?

To evoke laughter, comedy depends on the build-up of tension, which is released by a surprise. This explains why comedies cannot be rewatched with the same level of amusement—for the surprise to work, it needs to be, well, a surprise. If you know what’s going to happen, it’s not funny. For the same reason, a Cliff’s Notes version of a comedy isn’t the same as the comedy itself; a comedy just can’t be summarized. The point of a comedy, in short, is the moment-to-moment experience of it.

In this way, comedies reflect the way we experience life. We human beings think we can plan out our lives. But in the moment-to-moment experience, sometimes the unexpected happens. Comedies mirror those unexpected turns and twists of life.

Many of the world’s religions actually codify these vagaries of life. Nature religions personify aspects of existence with gods and goddesses. Storms, earthquakes, but also love and eroticism are forces that people need to cope with. Trickster gods are part of the pantheon. They personify life’s surprises that confound human beings and their plans. There is a wisdom here that monotheistic religions cannot express; a single, all-knowing, all-good and all-powerful deity simply would not place obstacles in front of people for sheer amusement. But there are times in life when it sure feels that way.

In ancient Greece, the trickster god was Pan, who amused himself by stymieing people as they went through their lives. Unable to comprehend the god’s humor, the people became increasingly frantic. The Greeks labeled that frenzy as “panic.”

So the deep truth of comedy is this: the next time that the unexpected causes you to revise your plans suddenly, don’t yell or cry or toss a houseplant out the window. Laugh. You’re in the midst of a panic. And you might just see that the joke is really on you.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

In Defense of Laughter, pt. 1

Why is it that movie bad guys always laugh? “The world will be mine… hahaha!”

We can put the question another way: why is it that laughter has become synonymous with evil? As a culture we don’t usually cast sadness and tears as markers of malice. In Dante’s Inferno Satan, the source of all evil, weeps throughout eternity. In real life too tears probably cause more ills than laughter. As anyone with knowledge about domestic violence knows, abusers often tearfully express their remorse, thus sucking the victims back in. And that’s just one example among many. But you’ll rarely see tears as symbolic of evil these days. What is it, then, that causes our cultural suspiciousness of laughter?

Umberto Eco discusses the value of laughter in his novel The Name of the Rose (1980). Set in an Italian monastery in the 1340s, the novel depicts a series of murders that need to be solved by a visiting friar, William of Baskerville. In a key scene, William gets into a debate with Jorge, an elderly monk, about an esoteric topic—whether or not Christ laughed. More broadly, did God sanction laughter, they argue, or did He avoid it and, by extension, expect His followers to do so as well? On the surface, this sounds like the kind of trivial theological debate that echoed throughout medieval halls. But while Eco’s work is fictional, and hence factually inaccurate, it also expresses a deeper truth; it is informed by a keen observation about Western culture.

As Eco knows (he is a renowned scholar of the Middle Ages), there is a long-standing tradition of denigrating laughter in the West. In a nutshell, laughter is symbolic of pleasure, while tears are symbolic of pain. Pleasure and pain, objectively speaking, are merely the brain’s subjective interpretation of nerve impulses. But for millennia, Western Culture has not treated pain and pleasure equally.

Pain is symbolic of Goodness: the Crucifixion of Christ, and the blood of martyrs. Pleasure is evocative of the joys of physicality. Pleasure, therefore, indicates the life of luxury that people should reject if they want to be saintly. Pleasure is sin, in short, and our culture’s suspicion of laughter is part of the West’s broader suspicion of pleasure. These connotations of pleasure and pain are the subtext to Jorge’s debate with William of Baskerville. They also explain that staple of action movies, the laughing evildoer.

So the next time some super-villain laughs while taunting a cape-clad hero, remember that the gesture is merely an arbitrary cultural artifact. He could just as easily be weeping bitter tears as he plots the destruction of all creation!!!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Conspiracy Theories

When Archimedes discovered how to prove the purity of a gold object, the story goes, he ran naked through the streets of Syracuse shouting “Eureka!” The anecdote illustrates the depth of emotion a person feels when resolving a problem. Some neuroscientists contend that the pleasure center of the brain is activated when it solves a tough problem.

I make no claim to medical knowledge, but as a scholar of the humanities I do understand the power of stories. Neuroscience is but one factor in explaining the persistence of a folkloric narrative genre in our culture: the conspiracy theory.

Of course, pleasure isn’t the first emotion that springs to mind when thinking of conspiracy theories. But conspiracy theories take disparate pieces of information—sometimes even fictional information—and put them in a satisfying framework. They offer an explanation for the true (if hidden) nature of reality. And for those who believe in them, they tickle the pleasure center by answering the riddle of the real way that things are. They also appeal to a second, related emotion: hubris. Reality simply must be more complicated than what it appears on the surface—and I have figured out what you lesser minds cannot see!

Although stories similar to conspiracy theories have existed for centuries, their modern form has its roots in a nineteenth-century book. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was purported to be the true document of the Jews’ plans for global domination. Their tools were the banks, governments, and the modern media, all of which they supposedly controlled. The book thus offered a simple explanation to the social changes caused by the capitalist system and industrialization. It took unrelated cultural phenomena and gave them a narrative—and more importantly someone to blame. In reality, The Protocols was a forgery composed by the Russian security services at a time when Eastern Europe was racked with pogroms.

Not all present-day conspiracies are anti-semitic. But they still share the characteristic of presenting historical events as controlled by small, powerful cabals. They present a definable group of individuals posing a threat to us and to our society. And this leads to yet another emotion they play upon: self-protection. For adherents of the theory, we must defend ourselves from them. Of course, the history of the twentieth century illustrates that it’s a very quick pass from defending ourselves to assaulting them.

After you’ve seen a few conspiracy theories, however, it becomes quite easy to spot new ones. There is a monotonous sameness to them, although their characters and plots may change. Reality is often too prosaic to inspire people from shouting “Eureka!” It also may not induce people to acts of violence.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Computer-Assisted Learning

A news story in the New York Times summarizes a recent study that challenges the accepted wisdom of the past two decades. It shows that computers in the home cause students’ grades to go down, not up. The belief had been that internet use—with all the information of the world just one Google-search away—would be an instructional boon. But proponents of the transformational power of computers forgot a couple of things.

First, they forgot history. As I man in my forties, I remember the audio-visual revolution of the 1970s. Yes, audio-visual technology was touted as innovative for educators, much like the more recent hype about computers. But I experienced “filmstrip days” as a child, not as an educator. I remember that sense of relief I felt whenever I walked into the classroom and saw the machinery—here was a day I wouldn’t be working (read: learning). Computer-assisted education isn’t really any different.

And this leads to the second major element that the proponents of computers forgot: the teacher. Tools are just that—tools. They are meant to enhance the education process. But in the rush to get the latest technology into the classroom, no one stopped to think how it would get integrated into a broader plan of education. Instead, in the case of “filmstrip days,” the program for a unit was stopped and an extraneous element—the technology—was thrust into the classroom. No one knew what to do with it, neither the students nor the teachers.

But in my opinion, the real problem with technology is human nature. As a professional teacher of Italian, I’m always fielding questions about which computer program is best for teaching a language. The truth is, none of them. Don’t get me wrong, the programmers can put together good explanations, and accompany them with well thought out activities. But in years as a language-instructor, I’ve never seen them work. Simply put, they fundamentally misunderstand what it means to educate.

“To teach” is a dative verb that requires an indirect object: a person teaches something to someone. This linguistic point underscores a deep truth about education. Students learn from teachers who motivate them. A fundamental component of the educational process is the human element: the interaction between one person with another. In the case of language learning, you learn a language to communicate with other human beings. It makes sense, then, that you’d learn a language from human beings, and not from a machine—after all, you’ll need to practice talking to people in that language from the start!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

On Interpretation

Perhaps the most important aspect to the study of the humanities is how it teaches about reading. Not “how to read”—although literacy is essential to the humanities—but about the nature of reading.

There is a peculiar tendency in American culture to believe in literal interpretations. From churches to legal scholars, there are populations who promote themselves as literalists. Other people “interpret,” while they simply go by “what the text says.” The problem is that literal interpretations are virtually impossible. Here’s an example:

On April 20, 2010 the US Supreme Court struck down a federal law that prohibited the sale of films of animal cruelty
. The 8-1 decision reaffirmed the freedom of expression enshrined in the Constitution’s First Amendment. Several Justices, most notably Antonin Scalia, are literalists; they parse the meaning of the Constitution to understand what it meant when its authors wrote it.

So let’s look at the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” We normally read it to mean the freedom of expression; but that’s not what it says. The two main forms of mass communication in the eighteenth century were verbal (“speech”) or the printed word (“the press”). No other technologies existed at the time.

Film, in other words, is not literally covered by the First Amendment, only oral and written language. Yet the literalists on the court interpreted the First Amendment as covering film. So am I suggesting the US Congress apply bans to all other forms of communication? Not at all. I’m suggesting we challenge the fiction that anyone can read texts literally.

Meaning is not inherent to texts. It takes a human mind to derive meaning from scratch-marks on a page. But that human mind does not exist in a vacuum. It has its own history, including personal and social experiences, other works it has read, and idiosyncratic forms of reasoning; and it brings all these to bear when approaching a text. Interpretation is central to the humanities. The power of the humanities is understanding the nature of interpretation. The beauty of the humanities is seeing the range of reasonable interpretations of the same text.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Just the Facts?

In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the narrator Ishmael spends an entire chapter explaining why he believes that whales are really fish. There is just one problem: whales are mammals, of course.

In this blog, I have written a lot about “the Truth” or “truths”—how the humanities express some of the deeper realities of life. But what about the inaccuracies, when works of art are just mistaken? What do we make of texts when they get the facts wrong?

This isn’t a minor question. Literature has a long memory because we still read classics composed hundreds—sometimes thousands—of years ago. Almost any historical piece of fiction will get something wrong. Any cosmology written before the seventeenth century will be geocentric, even though the solar system is heliocentric. There are numerous anachronisms in Shakespeare’s tragedies. In his Julius Caesar for example clocks struck time, when in fact the mechanical clock was invented in the fourteenth century.

The first response to these errors is: so what? We don’t read Shakespeare to learn about the history of technology, but to gain his insights. We don’t read Moby Dick to learn about whales, but about Ahab’s very human obsession. We can usually compartmentalize the authors’ insights away from their flawed understanding of the world. The only one who can be upset about Ishmael’s mistake is, well, a whale.

But the situation is actually very complicated. Factual errors are one thing, but what about flawed perceptions of other human beings? There’s reason to interpret Richard Wagner’s deformed and corrupt character Alberich as a Jewish stereotype (although this isn’t entirely clear—but Wagner really was a renowned anti-semite). With this in mind how should we approach his Ring Cycle? We can’t simply discount it, because it’s a musical masterpiece. Its impact on European music cannot be measured. But we can’t pretend that he didn’t hold and express offensive opinions. Nor can we take refuge behind that old staple, “he reflected the beliefs at the time.” Many people in the nineteenth century did not share his beliefs, and some challenged Wagner’s anti-semitic writings. Cultures are never monolithic, after all. What now?

It comes down to insightful readers. Writers don’t simply dictate to passive readers; readers aren’t mere sponges, absorbing indiscriminately everything the author thought. Readers engage with and interpret literature. It is the on-going interaction between works of literature and their readers over the years that makes them great. The acknowledgement of objectionable opinions doesn’t change the writers, who are usually dead, but it destroys two-dimensional images of them. And that can be a positive development. Calling people “great authors” glosses over the fact that they were human beings who blew it sometimes.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Isn't It Ironic?

Among the allegations about childhood sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Europe earlier this month, Father Raniero Cantalamessa caused further scandal. He likened the media’s interest in the story to anti-semitism. The outrage was intense, particularly among Jewish groups: how could anyone compare the experience of Holocaust victims to the publication of credible accusations?

Father Cantalamessa fell into a common trap regarding language use. A staple among apologists for the Church is the idea that anti-Catholicism is the last religious prejudice tolerated by the mainstream culture. Prejudices against all other religions are considered politically incorrect; but denigration of Catholicism is still countenanced. Hence, anti-Catholicism has become the anti-semitism of our age, they argue. Father Cantalamessa mangled the argument, however.

But the problem was greater than simply one person’s clumsiness. Languages develop within groups of people, and insiders become used to the group’s expressions, arguments, and stories. The group members become so habituated to their own language that they can succinctly allude to it, sometimes with a mere word. The problem, as Father Cantalamessa discovered, is when they do so with outsiders, who do not share a similar background.

One theory of the novel is that it is a genre that represents the society’s many languages. The author brings together the speech of different groups, and puts them in dialogue with each other. The author can do this by having characters that are insiders. Their statements naturally reflect the group’s opinions and thus contain the group’s language. But the author can also do so by imbedding the statements in the prose, by “citing without quotation marks.” If you listen to passages, you can tell that the narrator is making indirect reference to someone else’s words.

When done right, the novel’s collision of languages yields fruitful results. With all due respect to Alanis Morisette, irony is not “rain on your wedding day.” Irony is the literary technique of making a statement that conveys the opposite meaning. Irony, in other words, is the technique of taking insiders’ language and revealing its artifice: its presuppositions, its biases, and omissions. And irony highlights the flaws in their argumentation.

Despite the fact that many editorial writers try to be ironic, irony is actually a difficult technique. But Father Cantalamessa perfected it, probably on accident.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Don't Count on It

A recent story in the New York Times discusses Google’s improved translation algorhythm. A scientist at Google said: “This technology can make the language barrier go away.” Don’t count on it.

I performed a little test, one we language teachers do for the benefit of our students. I translated a simple passage into Italian; then I translated the translation back into English. Sounds simple enough, right?

Here’s the original:

Hello my name is Fabian. How are you? I'm forty-four years old, and I've been teaching since nineteen eighty-eight. I am married and have a seven-year old daughter. I've lived in Tucson since nineteen ninety-seven.

Here’s the translation of the translation:

Hello my name is Fabian. How are you? I'm forty-four years, and I taught from eight nineteen eighties. I am married and have seven year old daughter. I lived in Tucson since nineteen ninety-seven.

What’s really funny is the translation itself. In Italian, it rendered “forty-four” as “forty-two four” (“quarantadue quattro”) and “seven-year old daughter” as “seven years daughter” (“sette anni figlia”). It didn’t even attempt “nineteen” but left it in English (“ottanta nineteen-eight” and “nineteen novanta sette”). Strangely it translated some of these unreadable items back into readable English.

And none of this even brings up the inevitable cultural references in everyday speech. “Caporetto” translates as “Caporetto.” You need to know that it was the site of a major rout of the Italian army in World War I to understand why it’s commonly used to describe catastrophes large and small.

I have no beef with Google or any web-based translation. There are many websites that can be made accessible by their technology. But when people conclude that technology can make language study obsolete, well, that’s just not the case. Take it from me, I taught from eight nineteen eighties.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Eppur si muove (And yet, it moves)

“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two is four. If that is granted then all else follows.” —George Orwell, 1984

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) is renowned as one of the founders of modern science. This year marks the four-hundredth anniversary of his discovery of the moons of Jupiter, a discovery that induced him to accept Copernicus’s sun-centered view of the solar system. What is less well known in the United States is that he was also a great writer. Nowadays we tend to divide the humanists from the scientists, but Galileo was both.

Dan Brown cast Galileo two-dimensionally as the first casualty of the war between science and religion. But Galileo saw no distinction between faith and reason either. He wrote that God composed two holy books, the Bible and Nature. When the two seem at odds, it’s only because people are reading the Bible incorrectly. The Bible, he wrote, uses metaphorical language that is easy to misinterpret; it ascribes a mouth and hands to God, for instance, a limitless Being who literally has neither.

Because it was the creation of God, Galileo held an equally expansive view of Nature. In one lyrical passage, he wrote a parable of the scientific method. A man wants to learn about Nature’s sounds. He begins with the singing of a bird, then the chirping of crickets, the vibrations of strings and the whistle of a reed. Each time the man thinks he’s categorized all the possible sounds, he discovers another way that Nature creates them. He concludes that he knows a few ways that Nature creates sounds, but there must be thousands of others that he has not experienced.

As a figure, Galileo exemplifies that the categories we find so natural—science v. literature, science v. faith—are artificial. He illustrates that, when done correctly, they all work in the service of the truth.

Perhaps the best example of Galileo serving the truth didn’t occur in reality. The legend has formed that, just after the Inquisition forced him to recant the heliocentric theory, he muttered “Eppur si muove” (“And yet, it moves”). The meaning of the statement is clear; the Inquisition could force one man to deny the truth, but it couldn’t actually change the truth. The statement doesn’t express defiance so much as faith: Nature’s truths are always available for someone—anyone—to see.

There is great comfort in the sentence “Eppur si muove.” George Orwell wrote of a frightening government that defined truth as whatever the party needed. Through torture, it makes Winston actually see that two fingers plus two more can equal five. Our society is unlike Orwell’s dystopia, but we are inundated with falsity, misinformation, half-truths and spin. From urban legends to political commentators to advertisements, it seems that the truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. The legend of Galileo reminds us to have faith. Despite some people’s cynical efforts, the truth remains unchanged, inviolate, and will someday be revealed.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Dante with Pecs

This month Dante’s Inferno has gotten a lot of media attention. By Dante’s Inferno, I don’t mean the great poem. Xbox just released a game entitled Dante’s Inferno, in which players lead a buff warrior-knight, Dante, through the nine levels of hell. He must battle his way to the very bottom to save the soul of his beloved Beatrice, who had been kidnapped by Lucifer.

I write that Xbox’s game is “entitled” Dante’s Inferno and not “based on it” because it bears little resemblance to Dante’s poem. In the poem, Dante journeys through hell and interacts with the damned. There is some action, as when his enemy Filippo Argenti tries to grab him. But it is nothing like game character blasting his way through a horde of unbaptized babies in Limbo. Xbox kept Dante’s infernal topography and the names “Dante,” “Virgil” and “Beatrice.” But they changed everything else to make a more exciting game. Indeed, in the poem, Beatrice is a heavenly being who Saves Dante. “Saves” with a capital “s,” because her intervention allows him to turn from sin towards redemption.

Xbox’s game raises the question of the difficult relationship between mass media and the arts. When mass media—movies, TV shows, and now video games—are based on literary works, they have to transform the texts, sometimes dramatically. Film scripts need to shorten and condense the plots of novels; they have to simplify complex ideas, and put them in the mouths of characters. No one would play a game literally based on Dante’s “Inferno”—it’d be too plain dull!

Of course, there is a positive side when mass media is based on literature. Games and films generate interest in the works among people who otherwise might not read them. And when they are successful, more interest—and sometimes money—goes toward the works and the people who study them.

What causes consternation among readers of those works is not so much how the media alter them. That is to be expected. It’s how the new versions actually supplant the originals in many people’s minds. The show (or game) becomes the new “standard,” and has the tendency to marginalize the original. JK Rowling’s books are rich, nuanced works, which the films strip down to their most simplistic form. Yet for as many times as I’ve read all of them, I can’t help but picture Harry Potter as Daniel Radcliff.

At times, people expect the original to have the changes—and the special effects—of the latest movie, TV show, or game. Worse still, others don’t realize that those changes have nothing to do with the original.

Case in point: conjure up the image of a velociraptor—about the size of a man, green lizard-skin, maybe 12 feet long from nose to tail. This is the velociraptor from Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. And it’s incorrect. Scientifically speaking, velociraptors were about 6 feet long, and stood about waist-high to a person. As happens with literary works, the movie-version has totally supplanted the scientific reality in people’s minds.

Oh, and they were probably feathered too.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sick at Heart

Help! The king is ill and is killing his subjects!

After learning that his beloved was unfaithful the king lost his mind. He began marrying young women, bedding them on the wedding night, and then executing them the next morning. But when Scheherazade was in his bedchamber, she told him a story; she embedded one story into the first so that when the evening ended, the narrative was incomplete. She thus postponed her execution by a day. The next evening she did the same thing, and so on for many more nights to come.

After a thousand and one nights, however, a funny thing happened. The stories came to an end and the king was cured of his insanity.

A more dramatic cure takes place in Boccaccio’s Decameron. During the plague of 1348—a real event which killed over a third of all people throughout Eurasia—ten youths escape to a Tuscan villa. They spend two weeks telling a hundred tales. But at the end, they return to Florence… and the plague is gone.

Of course, I’m not going to suggest that literature can cure mental illness, to say nothing of physical ailments. But for centuries literature has brought comfort to readers.

For centuries, the history of literature was about giving voice to different groups—people of a common language, heritage or citizenship, or of a particular region or belief. The process is still ongoing.

For example, in a society that still undervalues certain groups—women, people of color, of lower socio-economic status, or of certain sexual orientations—it can be uplifting for individuals to “read their story.” Of course, the works are fictional, and therefore not literally “their story.” Still it is important for people to see themselves as actors in the world, even when the society defines them otherwise.

But socio-politics is only part of the picture. Literature can speak to difficult experiences, and can help people make sense of them. Whether dealing with emotional betrayal or universal calamity, it gives a person the sense that someone else understands their predicament. And that knowledge alone can be crucial.

Literature may not change tragic circumstances, and it won’t cure psychosis. But it can make a difference in how someone faces their situation. And sometimes, that makes all the difference in the world.

Monday, February 1, 2010

No One Saw It Coming

Economist Thomas L. Friedman has discussed how the world economy has made national borders obsolete. You might think that the languages would be valued more highly right now. Yet Americans still learn foreign languages at woefully low rates.

As I have stressed several times in this blog, the value of the humanities transcends the question of job preparation. But the question increasingly posed to all academics these days is the value of their fields—“value” often understood strictly in terms of economics. Will this information help someone get a job? For many reasons, the humanities fare worse in answering this question these days.

My field, Italian, suffers the same fate as the rest of the humanities. Sometimes more so. We simply haven’t done a good job overall of explaining the benefits of Italian. People associate Italian with pleasure—food, fashion, art, and opera. But business?

For decades, Italy has been a part of the G-7 (or G-8 or G-20) groups of economically powerful countries. Last year Italian automaker Fiat announced its take-over of Chrysler. Business has become transnational, and Fiat’s acquisition of Chrysler is only another example of that fact. Fiat’s acquisition of Chrysler is a clear example of how Italian is a valuable business asset.

I wish I could say that I had some foresight of Fiat’s owners’ decision. I had no more prescience than anyone else in the US. And that’s precisely the point I’m trying to make.

No one saw Fiat’s decision coming. But in the wake of Fiat’s purchase, Italian appears a little bit more essential. Funny how that works, isn’t it? Particular areas of knowledge seem trivial until they suddenly become necessary. In the first half of the twentieth century, physics was a backwater. Then World War II necessitated the production of an atomic bomb, and then the Cold War required many more. With the government’s interest—and investment in—nuclear physics, it became the cutting edge. Similar shifts take place all the time. When President Nixon declared a war on cancer, oncology research became a booming field. With the threat posed by the Soviet Union, federal moneys went to Russian and Slavic languages. And what field could be less lucrative than paleontology—until, that is, Hollywood produces a blockbuster about dinosaurs.

A university education benefits the individual, of course, but it also benefits the society. The community profits by having people trained in many different areas. It is arrogant to presume that some fields of knowledge are essential and others are not. Because who can tell? It is just a matter of time before circumstances require a group of individuals trained in those areas.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Making College Relevant

The January 3 2010 issue of the New York Times contained a story entitled “Making College ‘Relevant.’” It details the pressures on universities to justify their programs in the current economic climate. Increasingly administrators—and the general public—are demanding that university programs do a better job of preparing students for their future employment.

Many people assess the value of an academic field in terms of job preparation. They wrongly assume that the humanities offer little in terms of job skills. As several people argue in the story, however, the humanities contribute greatly to future employment. Employers do not want students to over-specialize in their youth, but to have a broad range of skills. Some of those skills included:
• Critical thinking
• Clear use of language
• Educating people for a lifetime, and not merely as job preparation

As people mentioned in the story, these are areas the humanities excel at teaching.

Some of the news items are troubling, such as the closure of programs in philosophy and classics, which are central to university education. The explanation offered for closing philosophy is equally troubling; the perception that philosophy is an essential program “has lost some credence among students.” Thus, students’ opinions on the field’s value now determine the curriculum.

If students and the general public do not see the relevance of a field of study, then there is indeed a problem. The answer is not for humanists to dig in our heels and reiterate old arguments. We need to conceive of ours fields in new ways and make a better case for them to a skeptical public (skeptical in my opinion, not hostile). As the story shows, many people are currently addressing the importance of the humanities. The fact that more people are dealing with the question gives me hope.