The study of the humanities has fallen on hard times. There has been a continuous decline in the numbers of college students majoring in humanities fields. Very few Americans study foreign languages. And one-fourth of Americans have not read a book in the last year.
A primary cause of this is our pragmatic view of education. We view college degrees as a tool for making money. We don’t see the cash-value in learning languages. We view reading as a task, rather than a pleasure.
What’s missing here is the deepening and ripening of the mind that occurs when we study the humanities. What’s missing is the expansion of our vocabularies and imaginations. What’s missing is reflection on the meaning of life.
The humanities do not reward passive study. It is not enough to memorize a song. You also need to let it sing from your soul. It is not enough to simply read Shakespeare. You also need to ponder Hamlet’s question: “To be or not to be?” It is not enough to regurgitate Socrates’s claim that the unexamined life is not worth living. You actually need to examine your life.
But we’re a fast-food nation. We like things to be quick, obvious, and familiar. We’re not good at the slow, complicated, and exotic. We are binge-watchers instead of bookworms. We don’t dine, discuss and deliberate. We guzzle, gripe and guffaw.
The brave, new world of social media and electronic communication rewards the reactive and the superficial. Leisurely rumination in a clean, well-lighted place has given way to fast tweeting on the freeway. In our technological society, words and ideas are merely tools for manipulating things.
But the humanities create new worlds of meaning, raising questions that open new perspectives and give us pause. English takes on a new meaning when we understand French, German, or Japanese. And a poem can help us see the world in a grain of sand.
The decline in the humanities may help explain the decline in civility. Civil discourse is slow and cautious. It depends on the strength of our imaginations. We have to be able to imagine our way into other people’s shoes. We must understand their suffering, their joys, their dreams and nightmares. If you want to know why the caged bird sings, you have to study literature, art, and history.
Our fast-twitch culture may also explain the puzzling prevalence of lies and ignorance in a world where the Internet can quickly fact-check anything. We should be smarter, now that we all have smart phones. But information overload undermines wisdom. We swipe instead of think. Pictures and memes have replaced poetry and argument.
Bertrand Russell once described wisdom as liberation from the tyranny of the here and now. Wisdom rises above the present moment. It resists the winds of fortune. It is indifferent to gossip and rumor. It points toward the good, the beautiful, and the true.
But we live in the moment, bouncing along from sensation to sensation. Our attention spans are short. We are greedy for money and attention. We don’t read or reflect. And so our thinking, if you want to call it that, rests on the surface of things.
I’m not claiming everyone needs to major in philosophy or that high school students should all study Latin. We need nurses, engineers, and accountants. But mostly we need an education that inspires human beings to be inquisitive, open-minded, and self-reflective.
An old saying holds that you should “be the change you want to see in the world.” But prior to this, you have to see the world and understand yourself. It is the humanities that help us imagine a world that is better, kinder and more beautiful.
As Shakespeare put it, the poet gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.
So hurray for the elementary school reading coaches, the middle school Spanish teachers and the high school drama instructors. Bravo to the teachers of music, art, and literature. And three cheers for the poets, playwrights, and philosophers who fill our lives with meaning.
Without these guides in the art of thinking and imagination the world becomes dumb, dull, and dreamless.