Friday, March 11, 2011


I may have mentioned from time to time that I feel an imperative to take on the role of public intellectual. That is, I agree with my colleagues who call upon those of us who work in the humanities to explicitly engage with the broader public, relating our work to the greater public, explaining what it is that we do, why we do it, and why it is important that we do it. They are all weighty questions, and it is all too often the case that the answers given are overly simple and unsatisfactory.

That those who work in the humanities are required to justify their professional existence is in many senses lamentable--certainly, many among us who are in the many fields of the humanities are convinced of their value, and so have difficulty understanding the need for justification. In some ways, we follow a doctrine not unlike the Protestant notion of justification through faith; we believe in the value of what we do, and so it has value for us.

But just as people doubt the existence of a greater creative power, and even among those who do not there is disagreement as to the nature and worth of that power,* there is contention as to the regard in which the humanities as fields of study should be held. Some hold that there is no sense in trying to study such things as plays and poems and books; they are simply idle amusements in such views, not worth serious regard and certainly not worth the consideration or support of the general populace. Others see the passion that those who study the humanities often hold for the work, and so accord it some respect as a life-work, though they have little real understanding of what the work of the humanities is.

Even aside from the self-interest served by convincing the unconvinced that we are right, there is value in striving to justify our work. If we cannot even arrive at satisfactory explanations of our works to ourselves, we have little right to attempt to convince others; we need to be able to articulate some rationale, some underlying idea for our work, at least for ourselves. I find that I have often felt the need to articulate one for others, even those who love me and want to support me but are unsure how to do so.

I cannot help but think that others in my field and related fields have similar feelings. My beloved wife, I know, is often pressed to describe what she does in her field of study; there is a general lack of understanding of what it does and what her role is in it. I have had students claim that certain fields of study are flatly "stupid," and while I am not apt to take seriously their comments in this regard (or a number of others, it must be admitted), I cannot escape the notion that their ill-advised outbursts are representative of prevailing social attitudes.

And so I come back to the drive to explain to people what those of us in the humanities do. It might seem from my discussion thus far that it is to spend a lot of words saying very little--and I cannot deny that the work of the humanities often seems to be very much that, not only in my own writing, but in the mouths and from the ends of the pens of many others. But it truly is more than that.

The importance of creative arts to humanity generally is not much open to dispute. People would not have spent so much of their existences in making and taking in various art forms were there not something of value in them. Even in some of the worst circumstances that have been endured by people, some of the most poverty-stricken and oppressed regions and groups, there have been artworks generated. And if they are so important to make that even people who live under the constant threats of death from the other three horsemen** will take the time to make them, then it stands to reason that they are important enough to study.

The study of artworks in their various media is the object of the humanities.

There are meanings embedded in the creative works people do, whether they are intentionally embedded into them or not. Even when the art "means" something "on purpose," there is more going on than the artist necessarily realizes; we all do things without really being cognizant of doing them, and even when we know what we are doing, there are consequences of our actions which we do not intend. The task of those in the humanities is to examine the works of art that are created and pull out the meanings, intended and otherwise, that are contained within them. In doing so, we approach more closely the central core of what it is to be human; by looking at what meanings we make and how we make them, and even how we perceive them, we gain a greater understanding of who and what we are.

And that, folks, is well worth learning.

*In the interest of full disclosure, I submit that I was raised Methodist and currently attend a Methodist church in New York City.

**I am aware that war, famine, and pestilence can strike any of us at any time. Many people, though, are only peripherally aware of it; my comment is specifically in reference to those who are more immediately cognizant of their imminent mortality, whatever the means of it may be.

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