Why The Arts?

In a recent article by Professor Arnold Weinstein of Brown University he addresses the question Why study the arts and humanities at a time like this?   I couldn’t have said it nearly as well myself.

Enthusiasm for the Humanities is much diminished in today’s educational institutions. Our data-driven culture bears much of the blame: The arts can no longer compete with the prestige and financial payoffs promised by studying the STEM fields — a curriculum integrating science, technology, engineering and mathematics. These are all worthy disciplines that offer precise information on practically everything. But, often and inadvertently, they distort our perceptions; they even shortchange us.

The regime of information may well sport its specific truths, but it is locked out of the associations — subjective but also moral and philosophical — that bathe all literature. A new technology like GPS provides us with the most efficient and direct route to a destination, but it presupposes we know where we are going. Finding an address is one thing; finding one’s way in life is another. Even our smartest computers or most brilliant statisticians are at a loss when it comes to mapping our psychic landscapes. . . .

. . .  The humanities interrogate us. They challenge our sense of who we are, even of who our brothers and sisters might be. When President Obama said of Trayvon Martin, “this could have been my son,” he was uttering a truth that goes beyond compassion and reaches toward recognition. “It could have been me” is the threshold for the vistas that literature and art make available to us.

Art not only brings us news from the “interior,” but it points to future knowledge. A humanistic education is not about memorizing poems or knowing when X wrote Y, and what Z had to say about it. It is, instead, about the human record that is available to us in libraries and museums and theaters and, yes, online. But that record lives and breathes; it is not calculable or teachable via numbers or bullet points. Instead, it requires something that we never fail to do before buying clothes: Trying the garment on.

Art and literature are tried on. Reading a book, seeing a painting or a play or a film: Such encounters are fueled by affect as well as intelligence. Much “fleshing out” happens here: We invest the art with our own feelings, but the art comes to live inside us, adding to our own repertoire. Art obliges us to “first-personalize” the world. Our commerce with art makes us fellow travelers: to other cultures, other values, other selves. Some may think this both narcissistic and naïve, but ask yourself: What other means of propulsion can yield such encounters?

This humanistic model is sloppy. It has no bottom line. It is not geared for maximum productivity. It will not increase your arsenal of facts or data. But it rivals with rockets when it comes to flight and the visions it enables. And it will help create denser and more generous lives, lives aware that others are not only other, but are real. In this regard, it adds depth and resonance to what I regard as the shadowy, impalpable world of numbers and data: empirical notations that have no interest nor purchase in interiority, in values; notations that offer the heart no foothold.

The world of information is more Gothic than its believers believe, because it is ghostly, silhouette-like, deprived of human sentience. If we actually believe that the project of education is to enrich our students’ lives, then I submit that the Humanities are on the right side of the aisle, whatever paychecks they do or do not deliver.

At a time when the price of a degree from elite institutions is well over six figures, fields such as literature and the arts may seem like a luxury item. But we may have it backwards. They are, to cite Hemingway’s title for his Paris memoir, “a moveable feast,” and they offer us a kind of reach into time and space that we can find nowhere else.

Clearly since this man is a Professor of Literature he has a not-so-hidden agenda. But some times it is necessary to put such considerations aside and just read and think about what the person says. We live at a time when the Humanities are under siege: the trend is away from the presumably esoteric involvement in the humanities and the arts to the more practical, down-to-earth quantifiable worlds of technology and business. Our kids need to find work after spending a small fortune on an education, to be sure. But finding work is far less important to the students than finding themselves, opening themselves up to the world around them and to other people, and embracing something that will reward them the rest of their lives. And it’s not as if they cannot do both — explore the arts and ideas of great minds while at the same time taking courses that will prepare them for the world of work after they graduate. Let’s not fall into the trap of bifurcation.

(The sound you hear is Professor Weinstein and me spitting into the wind!)


3 thoughts on “Why The Arts?

  1. oh no.. not everyone is deaf!

    many times when people visit, we discuss the above topics.. many other times when people visit, and highly-personal topics are discussed, i reach for a favorite book and quickly find a quote that bridges yesterday’s wisdom with today’s warring ethics… (last month the quote was from correli’s mandolin where the father advises his daughter…)

    the arts provide so much more than most realize, and one of those benefits is finding a way to silence the mind….

    it’s late, and i am reading a bit while overnight in quito.. tomorrow will be bck to the cloudforest/zero internet yet 100 percent connection to our amazing natural world. it is a true gift to be living here with pure air/ pure spring water/zero noise pollution – the benefits trump the challenges…

    as always, thanks for what you share!


  2. We have so few great thinkers who can interpret things, consider context and know what history tells us (like learning lessons from Vietnam or that no foreign army has ever been successful in calming Afghanistan).

    Most innovations occur in the intersects of disciplines. They guy who helped with Apple designs has a company that hires different types of people and let’s them blend their talents to create innovation. And, Jobs often cites his Calligraphy class as of great benefit.

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