Tuesday, March 24, 2009

How the Humanities Can Save America

Many people in the art world know Raymond Learsy as a scholar, author, collector, and the quintessential gentleman, but for years he's also gained quite the following as a blogger over at the Huffington Post. While many of his posts deal with economics and energy (he is, after all, a former commodities trader and the author of Over a Barrel: Breaking Oil’s Grip on Our Future), he recently offered one of the most eloquent (and patriotic) arguments for preserving the humanities in our universities that I've ever read:
America's greatness as a nation has had many pillars. The industriousness of its people, the braveness of it soldiers, the fervor of its visionaries, the national sense of shared community and destiny, its ability to right its wrongs, to name but a few. Yet paramount to our pillar of nationhood has been our understanding and reverence for the humanities and the great lessons of the human mind and the experience of history, the formative dimension of classical thought and instruction. No, not everyone was or has been a classicist, but our founding fathers were immersed in their text and learning. It formed their character and was instrumental in forming the new nation.
Mr. Learsy has been a critic of the Bush administration, but he's hardly a Neo-socialist Leftie (he was a Reagan appointee to the National Endowment for the Arts). In this blog post, he simply makes the connection between competence and curiosity and how a perpetuating of our current lack of emphasis on the collective history and life lessons that the humanities provides surely damns us all:
Given the implosion of what had been solid American values, that in recent years has mutated to the ugliness of rampant irresponsibility, self interest, greed, and civil and criminal fraud that have become the root cause of the financial meltdown, a renaissance and respect for the humanities that has in the past steered the nation to greatness are more urgently needed now than ever.

One need only go back to the Bush presidency to understand what lies ahead for a nation unschooled nor caring about the great texts, lessons, and values of history, art and literature. Here was a presidency of stubborn self-righteousness tempered by only a cursory understanding of the nation's tradition in the humanities. It was the presidency of a single-dimensioned man, forging through his mandate without the building blocks nor the strength derived from the past knowledge of the full spectrum of human experience which are the great lessons of life, to be tapped for wisdom, strength and guidance. Not in a single moment was this presidency able to invoke the brilliance of the English language and its profound well of inspiration and elucidation. The culture of others was too often misunderstood or simply not considered, and the guidance of mythologies past (what benefit might a rudimentary knowledge of the Icarus myth have wrought?) with their lessons through the ages were simply ignored nor ever learned at great risk in blood, treasure and morality to the nation as a whole.
President Obama's press conference last night was described in this morning's New York Times as mostly a response to how "balky senators from his own party [have begun] carving some of the signature proposals out of his budget." With fears of their own political fates, should the Obama plan backfire, nudging them toward making cuts, these Democrats (most still desperately in need of spine implants) must keep their butcher knives away from education and in particluar away from the means to support humanities programs. (To be fair, the Democratic chair of the Budget committee, Senator Kent Conrad, has noted his plan maintains Obama's plans for eduction).

But a commitment to "education" is not enough. Now is the time for a renewal of our commitment to the very ideals and belief systems that founded this country and, I believe, that can save it. As Mr. Learsy noted:

As millions of dollars are being funneled to educational institutions throughout the land it is essential that the humanities not be ignored. That in some form or other they become basic to any degree of study. The rootless morality of current years cannot be allowed to continue. Not to impose conversion, but simply to teach that it is there, and that in the history of this nation there exist a set of values that constituted our founding and from whence those values were carried forward for more than two and a quarter centuries, and became core to the shaping of the nation's character. That without the respect and commitment to the humanities, the grimness and obduracy of the Bush presidency will become the paradigm for the evolution of the nation's future destiny. And that must not happen!

Labels: humanities, politics


Blogger Bromo Ivory said...

The US government was founded with a deep understanding of Oliver Cromwell's rise to dictatorial power, and a love of contemporary (18th century) Political philosophy (The French Philosophes especially Montesquieu whose government structure was taken more or less intact for our own). Without such an understanding and lessons from history, the political structure of the US would have been quite different - and arguably less stable.

The US hasn't been - as a population - and intellectual country, but we do and have our elites. Many from humble background that studied the 7 Liberal Arts - Hamilton being a good example. Or studying on your own, as Franklin did.

The US educational system hasn't "gotten worse" but our focus seems more and more on "vocational training" be it in finance, engineering, law or medicine. Education for "self improvement" is a luxury many cannot afford. I say this when you are going to shovel out $80k-120k for an education, you are going to have to be able to service the debt or justify paying it up front. If a Humanities based higher education will lead to an income of $30k/year on average, an education for a Professional vocation will be $60-80k+, and a high School Diploma will lead to $20k-50k/yr ... well it's hard to justify anything but the professional vocation education. I think feeding into this is the unwillingness of employers to hire people "on potential" and grooming them into someone they would find productive - "what can you do for me today" is the mantra.

When an education cost was much lower, or "paid for" in the case of the GI Bill ... you will get a different result and culturally we'll all be better for it. (I believe the European educational system works this way)

This economic reality places a tremendous pressure on prospective students to study for a vocation, leaving "self improvement" to a haphazard after-university hobby. A shame, really. (And when I graduated, I found myself having to correct these deficits catch as catch can).

3/25/2009 09:32:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

There is not one scientific, politic, or artistic attempt that didn't started with philosophy.

As far as I know, philosophy is "Humanities". Right now, I'm commenting on a blog. That's probably because of Leibniz.
It would be very stupid to dismiss that.

Cedric C

3/25/2009 10:06:00 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Perfect post, just had this discussion with my daughter, a college sophomore, with a Liberal Arts focus.

Many of her friends have taken a very different path, nudged by parents, with a career in mind.

Our conclusion is that a good Liberal Arts education and travel is the best foundation for ANY path you choose.

I feel we may be on the verge of a new enlightenment, but after the last 8 years anything looks brighter to me.

3/25/2009 12:18:00 PM  
Blogger donna said...

I teach an interdisciplinary Humanities class at a community college to non-Liberal Arts majors. It's the only opportunity for them to experience the arts, since they are in fields like nursing, criminal justice, information technology, and business. It's the one class I teach that I feel I've made a difference in students' lives- they suffer through exploring the concepts of design principles, content vs. form and the elements of visual art, literature, film, dance and music having had virtually no experience with the arts- and at semester's end, they see with fresh eyes. Because the material is difficult, they complain to their department heads, and the class teeters on the edge of cancellation. So far we're still requiring it, but pure vocational instruction becomes more powerful as budget cuts loom.

3/26/2009 08:55:00 PM  

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