← Previous Post: | Next Post:


… who regularly link me to items of interest, I’ve got three things — a poem, and two opinion pieces — rattling around my headlet this morning. They all seem to have to do with the humanities, defense of. Let us see if we can organize them in order to make a point or two.

First, here are the items:

1.) A David Brooks column in today’s New York Times.

2.) A Stanley Fish column in the same newspaper.

A poem by Delmore Schwartz called The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me.


Brooks wants to “stand up for the history, English and art classes,” even though few students are interested in taking them. (Students only get excited about econ and related fields that will make them rich.) The Brooks defense of the humanities rests on this:

… Over the past century or so, people have built various systems to help them understand human behavior: economics, political science, game theory and evolutionary psychology. These systems are useful in many circumstances. But none completely explain behavior because deep down people have passions and drives that don’t lend themselves to systemic modeling. They have yearnings and fears that reside in an inner beast you could call The Big Shaggy.

… Technical knowledge stops at the outer edge. If you spend your life riding the links of the Internet, you probably won’t get too far into The Big Shaggy either, because the fast, effortless prose of blogging (and journalism) lacks the heft to get you deep below.

But over the centuries, there have been rare and strange people who possessed the skill of taking the upheavals of thought that emanate from The Big Shaggy and representing them in the form of story, music, myth, painting, liturgy, architecture, sculpture, landscape and speech. These men and women developed languages that help us understand these yearnings and also educate and mold them. They left rich veins of emotional knowledge that are the subjects of the humanities.

… If you’re dumb about The Big Shaggy, you’ll probably get eaten by it.

Here we get the humanities as cautionary tale. Know thyself. If you don’t, you’ll make terrible mistakes in life.

Brooks cites a couple of recent, representative mistake-makers: “[A] governor of South Carolina [who] suddenly chucks it all for a love voyage south of the equator, or …a smart, philosophical congressman from Indiana [who] risks everything for an in-office affair.”

Who says these were mistakes? Maybe they were true love for all Brooks knows. Was the Tipper/Al marriage a mistake? It failed. Did it fail because they failed to understand the big shaggy?

UD doubts this. She proposes that the Gores understand the big shaggy pretty well.


We all know people with very highly educated emotional knowledge who are fuckups.

We’re all fuckups of one sort or another, no?

So what if he has led a stupid life? Anyone with any brains knows that he is leading a stupid life even while he is leading it. Anyone with any brains understands that he is destined to lead a stupid life because there is no other kind.

Go ahead and disagree with this statement from Sabbath’s Theater, by Philip Roth. I’ll press on.

Here is a comment from Adam Phillips, a British psychoanalyst: “There are parts of ourselves – that don’t want to live, that hate our children, that want ourselves to fail. …[T]here is something strange about humans: they are recalcitrant to what is supposed to be their project.”

I mean, this is your emotional knowledge, no? Part of it? Not that you won’t get eaten by the big shaggy, but that you won’t be entirely assimilated into it when it starts chomping? That you might get a little leverage over it, eventually?

In his defense of the humanities, Fish cites Martha Nussbaum.

[Nussbaum writes that] “abilities crucial to the health of any democracy” are being lost, especially the ability to “think critically,” the ability, that is, “to probe, to evaluate evidence, to write papers with well-structured arguments, and to analyze the arguments presented to them in other texts.”

Here we shift to a humanities defense based not on mental health, but on civic health.

Developing intelligent world citizenship is an enormous task that can not even begin to be accomplished without the humanities and arts that “cultivate capacities for play and empathy,” encourage thinking that is “flexible, open and creative” and work against the provincialism that too often leads us to see those who are different as demonized others.

Nussbaum, like Brooks, defends the humanities as a force toward the creation of an organized and critical mind. I’m with them on this, although I think that some science and social science courses do the same thing. But as with the humanities as a pipeline to better mental health, I’m less convinced by the argument that a deep knowledge of Henry James will make you anything as grand as an intelligent world citizen. I think it’s liable to make you more tolerant and less provincial, because it will make you feel the vulnerability, variety, and complexity of human beings. But I also think that a true immersion into the humanities will make you very cautious about making big claims about outcomes. Many of the meanings we derive from deep humanistic study, after all, are quite disturbing, and even demoralizing.

Remember what William Arrowsmith wrote (I’ve already quoted him on this blog):

[The] enabling principle [of the humanities is] the principle of personal influence and personal example. [Professors should be] visible embodiments of the realized humanity of our aspirations, intelligence, skill, scholarship… [The] humanities are largely Dionysiac or Titanic; they cannot be wholly grasped by the intellect; they must be suffered, felt, seen. This inexpressible turmoil of our animal emotional life is an experience of other chaos matched by our own chaos. We see the form and order not as pure and abstract but as something emerged from chaos, something which has suffered into being. The humanities are always caught up in the actual chaos of living, and they also emerge from that chaos. If they touch us at all, they touch us totally, for they speak to what we are too.

Note that Arrowsmith’s understanding of the humanities is far more modest than that of Brooks or Nussbaum. For him, a prolonged encounter with the humanistic tradition amounts to a more and more sensate anguish at the recognition of our own chaos (this chaos is what Roth calls stupidity, and Phillips recalcitrance). The form and order of a great poem or a beautiful argument, we come to understand, suffer into being, emerge from the chaos of another consciousness. Which is to say that these accomplished objects, these solid touchstones, are not touchstones at all, but fragile occasional formal gatherings… The form and the order of literature and philosophy, in other words, can be thought of as a thin crust lying atop a deep fault line. We value many literary works precisely to the extent that they manifest the fault, the underlying chaos.

I’ll turn to the Schwartz poem in a moment. Time to post this.

Trackback URL for this post:

3 Responses to “Thanks to Three Generous UD Readers…”

  1. david foster Says:

    Michael Hammer, the management consultant, argued that the best undergraduate preparation for business would be a rigorous liberal arts program combined with a difficult scientific or technical subject. I excerpt his thoughts here.

  2. Bill Gleason Says:

    in agreement with David Foster,

    I would suggest a BA in physics, chemistry, or math…

    (In the old days, you had to take a decent amount of non-science courses to qualify for a BA.)

  3. Richard Says:

    It doesn’t move things forward a great deal to nominate examples and luminous individuals, but Stephen Jay Gould is probably the finest recent product (via his education) and exponent of reciprocity between the humanities and the sciences. Newton counts, if we track back a little, but Gould – not that I can wholeheartedly get behind his non-overlapping magisteria truce – very capably held disciplines in tension, informing the one with the other, refusing the alleged primacy of either. So capably, in fact, that he managed to make other ways of going about things look culpably backward or narrow.

    I remember, too, reading in a biography of Feynman of the mandatory classes in poetry and other literary subjects he and his fellow mathematicians and physicists were (awkwardly) obliged to take. Feynman couldn’t STAND it, bucked against it, raged in letters, but I think it did him good. It was likely more, much more, the case that his explanatory gifts were just that – gifts – and aspects of his sociability, but some kind of disciplined attentiveness to the ways words work, rub against each other, assume spin and colour, was possibly imparted by the classes. The formulation of ‘poetry as argument’ would probably have appealed to him, in any case.

    I don’t know whether it was a turn in Updike’s education or his romping curiosity that led him to science, but his reviews and a few of his poems are blissful engagements with it.

Comment on this Entry

Latest UD posts at IHE