Monday, April 20, 2020

Shrunken Habitats

     First a quote whose relevance will initially seem obscure:

     “At present the universities are as uncongenial to teaching as the Mojave Desert to a clutch of Druid priests. If you want to restore a Druid priesthood, you cannot do it by offering prizes for Druid-of-the-Year. If you want Druids, you must grow forests.” – William Arrowsmith

     Arrowsmith, a learned and highly literate man, was particularly concerned with the displacement of the humanities from university environments by trivial research: what he termed “the cult of the fact.” He had good reasons to be so concerned, for the pursuit of research grants even in the Sixties and Seventies, when he was most outspoken, was already pressing Humane Studies into a constricted corner of university life. University administrations are inherently friendly toward anything that draws funds toward their institutions, which the humanities, by and large, do not. Hence we have seen the swelling of scientific and technological departments at nearly every significant university. While that hasn’t always been at the expense of the humanities departments, it has served to overshadow them ever more as time has passed.

     I became familiar with Arrowsmith’s sentiments about thirty years ago, well after my career in engineering was in flight and rising. While I loved my occupation and was known to be good at it, I sensed that my focus on it, and on the sciences generally, had left me somewhat one-dimensional. Were I to be deprived of my engineering skills, of what value would I be to anyone? Certainly I could not posture as a source of wisdom, or a guide, in Matthew Arnold’s words, to “the best that has been thought and said.”

     The recognition caused me to remember something that had been said to me as I prepared to depart for college. It was uttered by Bruce Shiegura, a graduate in the class before me, upon learning that I planned to study mathematics and physics: “Don’t go to a technical college right off the bat, Fran; get an education first.

     Bruce, if you’re still out there somewhere, I hope you’re well and happy. Callow youth that I was, I couldn’t puzzle out what you had in mind when you said it. It took nearly twenty years.

     William Arrowsmith was concerned with the nurturing of the humanities. His focus on the demise of teaching as a cultivated, enthusiastically practiced skill was closely related to that. For the teaching of scientific and technological subjects is rather easier than the teaching of any Humane Studies subject. The reason is simple: In the humanities, there are no prescribed right answers.

     When right answers are available, the instructor is comfortably backstopped by the subject itself. His mission is to get the student to learn the techniques that lead to those right answers. Missing the right answer provides negative feedback: an indication that one has gone wrong and must examine his methods for their inadequacies. As long as the student remains motivated, the demands on the instructor are relatively light.

     The Humane Studies teacher has no such backstop. He does not seek to coach his pupils in how to reach the right answers, for there are none. His mission is to acquaint the student with “the best that has been thought and said” – political correctness and other varieties of censorship notwithstanding – and to instill in the student the habit of thoughtful contemplation of the eternal and never definitively answerable questions with which the humanities concern themselves.

     Why was this or that statement regarded as great wisdom in its era, though no longer? What relevance does it have to the enduring nature of Man and his struggles to learn and rise? How does it illumine his path, or assist him in surmounting its obstacles? How does this book, that painting, or that sculpture tell us what art is and is not? Did this sonata widen the horizons of musical composition in acceptable manner, or was it a mere mockery of the standards?

     There are no enduring answers to such questions. The Humane Studies teacher must be satisfied with intriguing his students, getting them to think for themselves – sometimes about themselves and their preconceptions – and instilling in them a love of learning for learning’s sake, not because it can help them to find a “right answer.”

     America has had its great men of the humanities, but for many decades they’ve been placed behind the great minds of science, technology, and industry in esteem. There’s little mystery to this. This nation prospers above all others because of its excellence in the “right answers” subjects. But over the years I’ve come to believe that we suffer a kind of poverty because we’ve forgotten the point of prosperity: what prosperity is supposed to enable us to do.

     “The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.” – John Adams

     Those who are beset or impoverished have no time or resources to spend on “the finer things.” Security and prosperity must come first – but once these things are achieved, what then? More security, more prosperity? The expansion of our arsenals and fattening of our purses without limit, with no other end to be sought?

     Harry Browne doesn’t think so:

     “[B]ecause we understand money and earn a lot of it, we are rich. And do you know what that means? It means we do not have to be preoccupied with it. We are free to enjoy many things in life that you cannot enjoy because you are too absorbed trying to figure your way out of the dilemmas your primitive money system has caused….
     “Mr. Solvent here gave up the matinee at the opera this afternoon to indulge your preoccupation with money. And Mr. Solvent regrets that – not because opera is ‘culture,’ but because opera is enjoyment.”

     For nearly all of us, there comes a point where we are secure enough and prosperous enough that it’s time to turn at least some of our time and effort to other things: literature, art, music, philosophy: the subjects of the humanities. But it seems that few of us make room for those things…perhaps out of fear that they might distract us from our paying trades.

     One of the consequences of the shrunken habitats we’ve left for the humanities is that those who dominate those fields are ever more commonly poseurs, propagandists, and second- or third-raters. Our truly able concentrate exclusively on the objective fields in which they can become richer and more influential. But the result is that what acquaintance our young have with the Humane Studies is perverted: warped in a tendentious, often outrightly deceitful fashion, with an ill-concealed sociopolitical agenda. They who eschew all contact with such things are fortunate in one sense: they avert infection by the cultural diseases that have been set loose among us by the deconstructionists and nihilists who have colonized and conquered our university humanities departments. But they are disarmed, left defenseless in ways they might never come to understand. Rare is the American who can avoid immersion in the pollution that the media call our “culture,” to nearly everyone’s detriment.

     There are consequences to the individual for being narrow of mind, shrunken of heart, and impoverished of soul.

     I didn’t intend to write about this when I first sat down to the computer this morning. It was a wholly spontaneous impulse. I have no idea whence it came, though I have a fair sense for what powers it. And I maintain that it is a serious matter that serious people must take seriously, for the sake of our sons and daughters and the future they will inhabit.

     We must nurture better habitats for the humanities – pipe down, Jimmy Carter; this isn’t about your grift – not only for the breadth they give to human existence but for the realignment of our national vision: specifically, why we bother to labor for anything beyond the food, clothing, and shelter required to keep body and soul together.

     It had better be for something other than the limitless increase of our bank balances, or I’ll have no justification for writing my furshlugginer novels.


Linda Fox said...

I started planning my garden this morning (Yes, I know I'm late - doubly so, as I live in SC. Too bad. I was neither physically nor mentally prepared for the task until today.).

I thought of a good "lab portion" of the Humanities classes - every student has to personally learn to garden, with the harvest being part of their grade (along with a Garden Journal of their thoughts during that process).

Actual experience with the soil - an experience that was not carefully curated, de-bugged (literally), and involving having to observe, test, and from their failures - would supply a component long missing from their education. It would force them to search out those gardeners with experience - many of them older and not as conventionally 'educated' - and learn from them.

An important part of this is making it clear, right in the syllabus, that they are expected to have failures, write about them, and learn from them. A's would go to those who had some weighted combination of output from their garden, journaling, and cooperation with other gardeners.

Francis W. Porretto said...

That's a very appealing idea, Linda.