More on the Humanities

Fall                             Waxing Blood Moon

Walked the fence today, checking for limbs, plants I’d missed.  Sure enough, about a third of the way around a large fallen tree branch pressed against the chain link shorting the fence and creating a hissing, popping sound when nudged.  The air smelt of burnt plastic fibers.  A visit with the chain saw fixed that problem.  Later on I tightened up the rope from a place where it had sagged.  After turning the fence off of course and putting Rigel in her crate.

This fence is a great metaphor, but for what I’ve not yet discerned.

On a topic close to my heart a professor of English for forty years wrote this essay:  The Decline of the English Department. Mr. Chace places yet another shot across the bow of careerism and the practical major while trying to suss out just what went wrong.  He puts his finger on the fragmentation of the humanities into gender, race, media and technology studies as well as the lack of passion for books and the traditional humanities.  In general I appreciate a man who takes responsibility for the dismal thing that has happened and I like Mr. Chace’s posture in this piece.

While I would like to blame the victims, too, the politically wracked departments attempting to right ancient wrongs in scant years by creating university departments, I find it lets off the hook the real culprit.  A relentless scanning of the horizon for opportunities to make money without regard to the social or environmental costs lies at the bottom of this debasement of education.

Crass instrumentalism has invaded every aspect of our lives.   Witness the prosperity gospel.  The growth of the mega-church. The new business orientation of medicine where patients are now consumers and doctors employees.  The rank greed filleted for all to see as the great economic crisis unfolded last fall.  The loose expansion of credit with fine print so dense not even its creators understood it.  Partisan politics make the party a blunt instrument for personal and factional advancement rather than a representative tool for negotiating compromises amongst civilizations conflicting interests.  Professional sports now have contracts in the quarter of a billion dollar range.  Tens of millions are not unusual for catching or throwing a football.  Educators at the elementary and secondary levels now teach to the test, a strategy created to insure that they meet federal standards and that their students pass high stakes tests.

It is this coarsening of the social fabric, gone from a workmanlike denim for the post World War II economy to a scratchy burlap in this age of the derivative, that has led to a pushing aside of any thing that does not promise economic or political gain.

This is not new.  A friend of mine has a neighbor in his condominium who was hired to teach philosophy at West Point.  In the time period before he began teaching a widespread cheating scandal unfolded.  The honor code had no clothes.  Leadership at West Point told him, “We can’t believe it, but we just never thought to teach our students ethics.  You have to put together a group of experts and develop a curriculum.”  Ethics is one of those disciplines that you can be taught, that you can know well, and that will have no affect on you at all unless you have the will to apply it.

It is not enough, in other words, to teach justice and critical thinking and wisdom and equality if there is no social will to honor them.  That social will comes from a shared conversation about our past, about our common destiny and our mutual responsibility.  Instrumental thinking places all the emphasis on results with means receiving attention only as they bend circumstance to the result.  This is a recipe for disaster as any historian, English or philosophy professor can tell you.  It is not new, it is not a new thing under the sun.  Rather it is a lesson learned by Moses when he came down from Mt. Sinai and found even his brother Aaron bowed before the golden calf.

Judgment came then and it will come now.

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