Proposing Frankly...

Anyone who's read this sucky old blog for a while knows that I'm a bit decadent when it comes to aesthetics.  My essential orientation can be found in Walter Pater's statement that "art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments' sake."  

Even so, I'm more than happy to acknowledge the coherence of socio-political schools of thought (Marxist, New Historicist, et. al.).  Hell, they're fine as far as they go, even if a bit dreary and predictable.  Besides, it's not their practioners' politics I object to.  It's their taste.

I'm a bit less amenable to those apologists who attempt to justify the Humanities as something with practical or "real world" value.  And it seems we're at it again.  The American Academy of Arts and Sciences has just released its report on the urgent need for Humanities education in the 21rst Century.  Entitled The Heart of the Matter  and composed by a blue ribbon commission of university presidents, former cabinet officials, pop stars and Times columnists, the report argues that Humanities education is vital for the creation of
... an adaptable and creative workforce. Experts in national security, equipped with the cultural understanding, knowledge of social dynamics, and language proficiency to lead our foreign service and military through complex global conflicts. Elected officials and a broader public who exercise civil political discourse, founded on an appreciation of the ways our differences and commonalities have shaped our rich history.
Did you catch that?  We need to teach Homer and Keats so our students can develop more profitable cell phone apps for their future employers, better infiltrate and understand Al Quaeda networks and tone down the vitriol on talk radio.  Don't get me wrong.  I'm all for civil discourse and strengthening democratic institutions; I just doubt there's anything in the arts that do this.  You learn community by being in community, not by reading Whitman. 

The specific goals advanced by this commission are even more curious:
  • Educate Americans in the knowledge and skills they will need to thrive in the 21rst century.
  • Foster a society that is innovative, competitive and strong.
  • Equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world.
Again, who could oppose these aims?  On their face they're unobjectionable.  It's just that they proceed from an assumption that the Humanities--and especially the arts--can actually get us there.  I would think it's abundantly clear that societies can economically thrive without such an education.  Last I looked, China was cleaning our clock on all three of these goals (and with nary an arts course in sight).  As for U.S. leadership and interconnectivity?  Well, fuddy-duddy that I am, I often think this poor world might do better if we led a little less and our students spent more time introspecting than interconnecting.  But that's just me.

Speaking of interconnectivity, I wonder if anyone on the commission saw the irony of naming the report after Graham Greene's novel, one of whose major themes was the impossibility of truly understanding another person.  I also wonder what the commission would make of my blue ribbon recommendations.  Or what the heck?  Let's just call them what they are: despotic fiats.
  • Educate people to confront their mortality and to take seriously the consequences of their actions.
  • Foster a society that questions deeply what it means to live a good human life.
  • Equip the human heart and mind to search for meaning and to understand their relationship to others.
You'll note there's nothing very profitable, practical, 21rst century or uniquely American about any of these goals.  Call me old-fashioned, but the Humanities are not about the bottom line or the battle line.  They're simply about being human.  Full stop.

Or let's put it this way: if you have to justify poetry, you've already missed the point.


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