July 6th, 2008

What is it with this American hand-wringing over the state of the Humanities?

Whatever, this article, which would be an even better read if I wasn’t feeling so thoroughly buggered today, poses a question:

First, we should try to impart some clarity to the term “humanities.” It is astounding to discover how little attention is given to this task. More often than not, we fall back upon essentially bureaucratic definitions that reflect the ways in which the modern research university parcels out office space. The commonest definition in circulation is a long sentence from a congressional ­statute—­the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965, the legislation that established the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. As you might expect, this rendition is wanting in a certain grace. But here it is: “The term ‘humanities’ includes, but is not limited to, the study of the following: language, both modern and classical; linguistics; literature; history; jurisprudence; philosophy; archaeology; comparative religion; ethics; the history, criticism, and theory of the arts; those aspects of social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods; and the study and application of the humanities to the human environment with particular attention to reflecting our diverse heritage, traditions, and history and to the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life.”

In some respects, this provides a useful beginning. But doesn’t it tacitly assume that we already understand the thing being defined? Rather than answer the larger question, a long list merely evades it. One doesn’t capture the animating goals of a manufacturing firm merely by listing all of the firm’s discrete activities, from procurement of raw materials to collection of accounts receivable. The task of definition requires that some overarching purpose be taken into ­account.

Or, in other words, what are the humanities?

Well, at first glance it seems easy to answer that question: The humanities are those academic disciplines that investigate the cultural and spiritual aspects of human life. And what are those disciplines? Well, see that list.

I don’t really want to discuss the article itself, though. In my current washed-out state it was more like interesting wallpaper that had my brain wandering off on various tangents. One of those tangents was the purpose of the humanities- something that I believe the article mentioned briefly in one of its earlier paragraphs. Well, I’m not entirely convinced that a purpose for anything is necessary. Isn’t existence itself purpose enough? But this leads into “use”- “purpose” and “use” being similar but somehow not quite the same. The humanities have a much more direct application to our lives and societies than so many in our Philistine age claim, and to that end I was glad to see Aldous Huxley and his Brave New World put in an appearance at the end of that article. The thing is, plenty of authors- other than Huxley, Tolkien (am I the only one to notice the Romantic, naively Taoist pro-Nature/anti-Industry tone of the Lord of the Rings?), Orwell and Zamyatin spring to mind- have already warned us of the dangers of our modern world, and they all did that before Europe’s empires finally collapsed, and their warnings are even more urgent today than when they were first written, and yet, in our narrow-minded, short-sighted focus on our own immediate gain and our refusal to think either laterally or long-term, we are still rushing headlong into novels that were written decades ago.

Really, a little more time studying what was written and what did happen long before would do wonders for our ability to figure out what is wrong with this world and what we need to do to fix it- and fix it properly, so that our descendants will have somewhere decent to live, or simply so that we will have descendants.

But of course, in the grand scheme of things, the real purpose and use of the humanities is simply the fact that they exist.

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