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Johnson: In defense of the soft subjects

<;(N.B. there’s nothing more embarrassing for a newspaper columnist than to have many of your points coincidentally — but convincingly — refuted in a letter to the editor published right next to your column).

During the debt ceiling debacle last July, Sarah Palin proposed cutting all funding to the National Endowment for the Humanities, which she described as “frivolous.” It was an example of the cut-everything blood rage that her party was in at the time, but I don’t think it’s safe to chalk it up simply to Palin being Palin and leave it at that. I think Palin was articulating something that America has felt in its gut for years, which is why do we need the humanities, anyway?
In a recent editorial on the potential collapse of American society, the Harvard history professor Niall Ferguson rails against “politically correct pseudosciences and soft subjects that deflect good students away from hard science” as a major problem in our society. Ferguson isn’t Palin – he’s Harvard faculty, sort of the prototypic Smart Guy. In Ferguson’s view, “soft subjects” like the humanities are a little like barnacles on a ship – inevitable outgrowths that need to be scraped off every once in a while to keep the whole thing hydrodynamic. Our society has been able to prosper because of its focus on technology and science – not on culture, which I suppose is the province of “decadent” societies like Brazil.

This argument amounts to the idea that literature and art, while they might have profound impacts on the inner lives of the people who consume them, are basically luxuries, made possibly only by earlier advances in science and the economy — that on a society’s food pyramid, economics, chemistry and physics are the grains, and poetry and music are the sugars and oils. They have no quantifiable benefit, and they do nothing for the material advancement of a society, so what’s the point?

The classic humanities counterargument goes like this: “quantifiable benefits” are a symptom of a ruthlessly post-industrial way of looking at the world that denies the importance of human emotions and the inherently irrational realm of the human soul, and woe betide anyone who would do away with the soul of our society.

I don’t have to tell you that this argument isn’t very convincing. The human soul has a lot of rhetorical power, but when the chips are down, it’s just not worth as much as an electron microscope or a bullet train. Here’s a case in point: my sister’s high school, which serves around 1800 students, has four special magnet programs:  business, communications, design technology and pre-health. They have three art teachers. Last year their principal was named Michigan Principal of the Year.

This seems like the fate of our society: the pure humanities will have to go. Unless they transform into communications, advertising, or industrial design, the humanities are going to wither away. And according to Niall Ferguson, that’s exactly the way it should be.

I have a few issues with this.

Earlier in the term I read a book, written in 2007 by the cultural critic and war correspondent Chris Hedges, called American Fascists. American Fascists is a series of essays analyzing and criticizing different aspects of the extreme, extreme religious right, especially its disturbing similarities to nascent fascist and totalitarian movements (as defined by Umberto Eco in an essay cleverly titled “Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt”).

Hedges’s warning about fascism didn’t completely convince me, although I’m certainly a little jumpier than I was before I read it, but what did strike me was the way he made culture the center of the book’s thesis.

Hedges identifies a lack of a sense of “community” as a central symptom in the the psychology of almost every member of the religious extremism he explores. As a rule, the people attracted to the religious right feel completely isolated from the human race in a world of strip malls, television commercials and highways. Desperate and with an aching need for a sense of wonder, beauty, and morality, they look for a God who will instantly gratify that need, and end up in a movement that actively agitates for political repression, military crusading, and the restriction of civil rights.

This is often a result of grinding poverty or chance, but Hedges stresses that more often than not it’s a cultural phenomenon, a feeling of being adrift in an ugly world without a moral compass. In other worlds, a visible and salient social issue has at its root problems of cultural disconnect that are not principally economic or political, but fundamentally human — problems that Niall Ferguson and Sarah Palin would dismiss as “frivolous.” No matter how sentimental the idea of a “human” problem might seem, it only takes a few thousand people before it becomes a social problem.

Culture — the ultimate subject matter of all the humanities — is the fabric of every society that has ever existed. Italy wouldn’t exist without Verdi and Dante; Germany wouldn’t exist without Wagner and Goethe. Shared immersion in culture is what makes a society a society. The understanding of culture, which is what the humanities represent, is nothing less than the understanding of a society’s thoughts and emotions, and I don’t think it’s ineffable or romantic to assert that keeping in touch with that is every bit as important as economic growth, or keeping SAT scores competitive.

The continued deterioration of the humanities isn’t just depressing; it’s dangerous. Welcoming the death of the humanities is not progressivism; it’s nihilism. The humanities are not icing on the cake of society. The humanities are the recipe for the dough.

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