Over a long period of time now, without even particularly realizing it, our culture has been increasingly devaluing the practice and study of the humanities. Whenever the President gets up and talks about education, the areas he mentions which need greater funding and promotion are always specifically “science and technology.” These areas do, it goes without saying, need sufficient support.
But what we’ve forgotten is that it is in fact the humanities which give value in the first place to everything else, very much including science and technology. The humanities contain the purviews, set the parameters, point to what is needed – and what is not. What is sane and nourishing, and what is not.
Recently I came across Martha Nussbaum’s book Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, which paints a sad picture of the state of things now and even more so of the direction everything is going. Her book was written as an urgent warning call, and it’s hard to argue with its basic view.
Our dilemma is that a secular culture still needs a source and foundation of values, of wisdom, and science and technology simply can’t provide these. It is the humanities and the arts which do so.
The study of language, philosophy, and religion teaches us how to think clearly and how to assess what is important, and why.
History is among other things a vast set of teachings on the million ways human beings can deceive themselves and cause unspeakable harm, as well as on how progress too arises in the world.
Literature and the arts open the mind and heart; generate greater empathy and understanding of other people and ourselves; teach us how to see more expansively and profoundly; bring all kinds of beauty and new human possibility into the world; and also … make everything else easier to bear.
But as Nussbaum shows, all over the world we are to varying degrees devaluing these the very sources of value itself. In favor of measurable economic growth, pure instrumentality, efficiency.
In so doing we’re losing our way and losing our soul.