Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Those who do not remember

An explanation of the value of studying the humanities, not to learn some skill, or for some immediate practical gain, but for the sake of learning about humans:
...[W]e live in a historical context, so having a sense of history is actually very useful in itself in making sense of the present: how many political debates have we had on this site that have come down to different interpretations of history? In life, I encounter a startling number of people now who seem to live in an eternal present, in which their society exists, for them, outside of any historical context whatsoever and the past is an amorphous grey zone with horse-drawn buggies. I wonder just how they could participate in their own democracy when they have no sense of how it came into being or how other societies have functioned. They have no historical parallels to draw from. It is never shocking to me to read about totalitarian states that began by rewriting, and finally erasing the historical record in the public mind. Those who do not remember the past have less space to oppose the present.

It’s not just history: all of the humanities, to some extent, give you a broader understanding of the world around you—the world of human beings—and the world within you. .... Ideally, all of the humanities do this—they help you to create your own guide to being human. Even more ideally, academic departments are a place that society allows for its slow and patient thinking to be done. ....

.... The humanities are rooted in the study of texts, which will increasingly put them at odds with a society in which reading is becoming vestigial. People who grow up detached from any cultural/historical context will find academics increasingly alien, if not offensive to their sensibilities. Attacks on the humanities will increase. The way to address them isn’t to trick the public into thinking they’re getting something else for their money, but to repeatedly defend the right of academics to hang back from the passions of the day—to be less-than-useful for whatever desires the society wants satisfied today. That means, by the way, academics in the humanities must drop altogether the pretense of political “activism” and, in their public role, become much more explicitly apolitical and inactivist; conversely, they need to start expressing quite loudly the worth of this eternal hanging back, instead of flattering and placating a culture that is arguably no culture. [more]
Thanks to Joe Carter for the reference.

Studying one Thing to Learn Another