We have had some good debates in my Rhetoric class this year. One of the debates was about the humanities. The study of humanities integrates different disciplines; often English, history, art, music, and philosophy are merged. As you know, here at MBS we have a humanities program.
I was interested in where my students would land on the question of the worth of the humanities, so I gave them the following statement by Stanley Fish and asked them to weigh in. Actually, I assigned them to agree or disagree. But if you were given a choice, which position would you defend? Here's what Fish says:
In his New York Times blog "Think Again" Stanley Fish argues that the humanities do not "do" anything except give us pleasure. Says Fish: "It is not the business of the humanities to save us, no more than it is their business to bring revenue to a state or a university. What, then, can they do? They don't do anything, if by 'do' is meant bring about effects in the world. And if they don't bring effects in the world, they cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them."
End of quote. What do you think? Where do you stand?
It is true that the humanities might not do anything measurable. So why did
MBS go to so much trouble to create a humanities program?
Not too long ago, a former advisee of mine named Theo Dubose wrote to me from college. Although Theo was heavily immersed in his studies of science and engineering, we had a series of e-mail exchanges about what makes great literature, prompted completely by Theo. Here's a line from his first email: "I think you might be able to attempt to quantify how great a piece of literature is by how often your heart breaks while reading it."
The next day he wrote me a revision of his definition:
"I think what I really meant, rather than "break," was "burst." The connotations of "break" are heavy in our culture; "break" directly implies a melancholy. But what I meant to convey is the raw enormous amount of emotional energy that comes at you fast. This raw connection is unlike what we normally do, which is separate ourselves from the book, analyzing it, living our lives separate. Great literature, however, seeps in through the gaps in our cynical armor and then widens the gaps until you're just exploding with whatever it is—sure it can be sadness, but happiness can do it too, with a good
writer who binds you to a character's happiness so much that you can't possibly understand it. And the happiness in writing about great literature comes from achieving an equilibrium, even as an analyst, showing how that amazing passage is so mind-blowingly emotionally raw, ultimately creating a fundamentally new narrative that overlaps yours with the book's."
In his final line, Theo argues that each of us creates a new narrative as we are in the process of reading. That is to say, that by reading and talking about books, our narratives intertwine, making reading an incredibly communal experience.
I once asked my class of ninth graders whether or not reading was dangerous, and a student wrote: "Books can be dangerous if you are reading about something you are very interested in, and it completely changes your mind."
When I asked what she meant by this she said, "I was taught that changing your mind is a bad thing."
When I asked why changing your mind is a bad thing, she said "Because you are supposed to fight for what you believe."
I stumped her when I asked, "But when you read a book about something that you did not know about, and your beliefs change. Is that bad?"
With this ex-student's words in mind, I asked my students in my Rhetoric class to write about something that they read that changed how they viewed the world. This is what one student wrote:
"Over the summer, I read Ayaan Hirsi Ali's memoir. Typically, I do not like to read about politics and religion, but this book was completely different. It was honest. Ayaan spoke about how she fully believed in her religion, but through exposure to new cultures, she became an atheist. Ayaan didn't sugarcoat anything and didn't try to defend the different perspectives. She told her story as she remembers it.
What stood out the most to me was that she was open to learning new things and changing her perspective. She wasn't stuck in "this is how I am supposed to act and this is what I am supposed to believe." With education, her beliefs changed. I am completely inspired by her because of this.
Simply, this book inspired me to embrace who I am as a person, but also to embrace the experiences that will influence and change my future self."
So, back to my question: Do we need reading? Do we need the humanities?
I would argue that reading and the humanities help us understand what it is to be human, and we cannot measure this value. It is not quantifiable.
Here is what John F. Kennedy had to say about poetry:
"Robert Frost ... saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment."
So this morning, my message to you is - find time to read. Perhaps it will inspire you to embrace the experiences that will ultimately influence and change your future self.