Why we need humanities and the arts: now, more than ever.

Last night I reblogged an article from Al Mackey’s Student of the American Civil War blog, which was itself a profile of a book called Why Study History? by fellow history blogger John Fea. Many of you who are regular readers of this blog responded very well to that article, because you understand why history matters and why it’s especially relevant now. Tonight I want to broaden that call, not just to my own discipline, history, but to all the humanities and the public arts. From English literature to painting, from classical Greek language to philosophy, from photography and sculpture to Native American and women’s and gender studies–we need it all, we need it now, and we need to fund it as much as possible with public money. This goes against both the conventional wisdom and the trends in Western society right now, where large-scale state disinvestment from arts programs to public libraries has been increasing at a frightening pace. But in doing so, we’re doing nothing less than sowing the seeds of our own destruction as a civilization. Humanities, in fact, could not be more important.

It could well be, today in early 2017, that the moral and intellectual foundations of Western civilization are under attack. I don’t have to tell you about the unending stream of horrors spewing out of Donald Trump’s White House, deeply threatening the principles of equality and human dignity upon which our democracy is (supposedly) based. But it’s more than just one politician, one terribly ignorant and misguided man, or even one country. Education is in deep crisis at all levels, from preschool to graduate school. Nativist, nationalist and fundamentalist movements are on the march in many countries and have made tremendous gains, from the victories of Daesh/ISIS in the Middle East to UKIP and “Brexit” in the United Kingdom. These movements thrive upon ignorance. They play up divisions and leverage anger, discontent and frustration to hammer wedges into formerly stable institutions. We see it in everything from Vladimir Putin‘s gleeful attempts to sow political chaos in the world, to the unconscionable and indeed delusional denial of scientific truths like the proven fact of anthropogenic climate change. The world is under siege, not by bombs or armies or terrorists, but by the erosion and rejection of thoughts and ideas upon which our society has been based since the Enlightenment.

library-of-alexandria

The Great Library of Alexandria, the seat of learning in the ancient world, was deliberately destroyed in an anti-intellectual riot. Priceless treasures of knowledge were lost forever.

Promoting arts and the humanities are the way–the only way–to shore up these eroding foundations, and indeed to arrest the disturbing downward spin in which it seems we’re now locked. History, one of the humanities, teaches us to realize what will happen to us if we let our society spin out of control, and how to recognize those leaders, policies or ideologies that threaten stability and equality. Literature, one of the humanities, gives us the tools to access the great ideas of the past, ideas from which we can learn to build our own futures. Art gives us a means to express our aspirations, dreams, frustrations and horrors so we can understand one another. Languages, one of the humanities, makes it possible to comprehend different ideas and peoples across the globe. These are the most important tools in our civilization’s collective toolbox. They’re the antidote to chaos, division and ignorance. We need more of them, not less.

Sadly, what’s taken root in recent decades, especially in America but also places like Canada and the UK, is the notion that arts and humanities are some sort of societal luxury, a host of frivolous pursuits that are better viewed as hobbies of elites rather than foundational values. Universities in particular are increasingly viewed not as places to educate our young, but as vocational training to prepare young people for economically viable careers–and nothing else. At the university I currently work for, business is now the most popular major. The business school has a brand new complex with spacious classrooms and state-of-the-art technology, paid for by lavish endowments from wealthy donors. By contrast the language programs are clustered together in a cramped, drafty building constructed in 1910, packed with battered furniture, leaking windows and overworked professors who have to share tiny offices. At my university they’ve built two major sports complexes in the past 4 years alone. During the same time, the budget for all arts & sciences departments were drastically slashed across the board, so much so that graduate students, in some cases, lost funding that had been previously guaranteed. The priorities inherent here are very clear.

peabody library by matthew petroff

Once upon a time rich people, like railroad magnate George Peabody, used their wealth to build magnificent museums and libraries, like the Peabody Library in Baltimore. Today, not so much.

Politicians are fond of telling us that “budget dollars are very tight” or that we continually have to make “hard choices.” The reality is that business interests, particularly corporations and wealthy individuals, simply don’t pay their fair share of the costs of our society. In the early part of the 20th century, land barons and railroad magnates, like the Huntington family of California, retired to lavish estates, but they also established foundations, funded humanities research and collected art treasures they exhibited to the public, like the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens where I did much of the research for my history dissertation. The Carnegies, Rockefellers and Guggenheims built concert halls and art galleries. They understood the value of humanities and the arts. Today there’s very little sense that the wealthy in our society have any obligations whatsoever to the rest of us. They may buy art treasures or rare books for their private galleries, but no one else gets to see them. Our society’s benefits are being mortgaged to create “shareholder value.”

This is utter madness, and it has to stop. Humanities and the arts are not frivolous luxuries. They’re the bedrock of our values, the source code of who we are as people and why we live. Art was one of the very first inventions of the human race, back in the Stone Age when cave people started painting pictures on rock walls. In the ancient Mediterranean, a library–the Library of Alexandria–was thought to be the center of the world, and its gossamers of ideas created a web that knitted together the intellectual life of the ancient world. When humanities and the arts are devalued, though, societies go to ruin. The Library of Alexandria was burnt down by an angry anti-intellectual mob. In the 1930s the Nazis burned books and declared artists “degenerates”; they wound up burning people by the millions. Are we today in 2017 so blind as to ignore these lessons? Are we really going to go down that road again? Sadly, as my friend Padre Steve often writes on his own thoughtful blog, the answer appears to be yes.

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The Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens, where I did a lot of research in 2014, is exactly the kind of monument to arts and humanities that we need more of–and that should be paid for by both private and public money.

Ideas matter. We live in a world of ideas. We always have and we always will. The most powerful invention of humankind is not a weapon, a rocket or a machine, however impressive. It’s a book. A book is nothing more than a means of storing and transmitting ideas. As we go forward into this frightening new world, let’s forget about building walls. Let’s try building some libraries instead.

The header image is in the public domain (CC0 license), and the image of the Alexandria Library is also public domain. The picture of the Peabody Library is by Wikimedia Commons user Matthew Petroff and is used under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license. The image of the Huntington Library grounds is copyright (C) 2014 by Sean Munger, all rights reserved.
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4 Comments

  1. Rant begins:

    They say if you invoke Hitler in an argument you’ve already lost. But the parallels are interesting. Hitler said what he was going to do in 1923 in Mein Kampf, and years later when he came to power and made all his ridiculous pronouncements and took all those drastic, bare-faced actions, it was his notional opponents who continually explained away his behaviour to each other. He was grandstanding, they said. When it came to the crunch he would not actually follow through, they said. Germany was in a tight spot and it was better to be too strong than too weak a leader, and so on. What was happening was that because they were civilised (if perhaps enervated) and he was not, they could not conceive of anyone actually doing what he said he would do, so they assumed he would not. So he continued to do one thing and say another and they continued to convince themselves that he could be believed until it was too late, and in the end everything he did was just as he said it would be, just as he laid it out in plain view in 1923. His preoccupations never changed.

    So I watch the news and I hear reporters and ‘experts’ and political pundits saying how Trump does not understand some sector of the community and how it is suffering, or how he will have to behave differently when he realises the limitations of his office, or when he has to deal with other countries he will have to do this or that…and the parallels are definitely there. He knows, he just does not care. The one things he knows is that he is right, and against that nothing else stands. The gags on NASA and the EPA. The barefaced lies where he stares into the audience and just says, ‘it’s going very well.’ When he lies, we need the reporter to stand up in the press conference (if they are given a chance to speak!) and say, “But, Mr President, that’s an outright lie.”

    In Terry Pratchett’s novels, he’ll sometimes say something that amounts to ‘people can’t see what they know does not exist, even if it is right in front of them’.

    Trump’s agenda is right in front of us, and just because it is unbelievable does not mean it does not exist.

    1. If someone is acting like Hitler we should definitely say so, and we (historians) are among the few who can speak to that subject credibly. Even beyond that, nothing that Trump has done has turned out to be less bad, less egregious or less shocking than even the wildest predictions about him. And, like Hitler, he’s told us exactly what he intends to do. It’s our own failure if we blind ourselves to how destructive he’s going to turn out to be.

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