I am a Ph.D. candidate in English. To most people – to my family, to my childhood friends, to the strangers who work in business that I meet at rowdy cocktail parties or staid dinner gatherings – this means that I love books. It’s true, of course. I do. And I do believe that books are worthwhile things to love and meditate upon and pause with in idle reverie. But they may not be any more worthwhile than video games, which friends of mine in the English Department also study and love. Nor are they more worthwhile than birds; trees; justice; religion; flash poetry (which doesn’t come in books); film; community; imagination – its cognitive mapping, its evolutionary function, its ethics, its relation to fancy; cities or animals. These all constitute objects of focused and sustained attention within the humanities, and, happily, they also often constitute objects of love.
Friends and family and cocktail party attendees are often generous – and perhaps you are, too, dear reader. Perhaps you’re already convinced. Perhaps you are willing to allow that the world and the objects in it are served by the kind of sustained attention that takes time, is sometimes counter-intuitive, and doesn’t necessarily always yield an application or profit or function. Then again, perhaps you’re quietly wondering (as I suspect some cocktail party attendees quietly wonder after the second drink – unless they are of the kind who become sloshily sentimental as the evening mellows) why, in an age of economic scarcity and dog-eat-dog survivalism, the general public should dedicate precious resources to a world of institutionalized stargazing. Shouldn’t that be an after-school activity? After all, the Person from Porlock ponders, I majored in business, but I love books and trees, too.
I love this critique, because it’s absolutely spot-on and provocative and it comes, I’d like to propose, from the very spirit of inquiry and critical thinking that the humanities work to foster. After all, I did my very best, in the first paragraph of this post, to mention lovely things that would lull my interlocutor into a romantic acceptance of the intrinsic value of eschewing value; the metaphysical goodness of meditating upon “the best that has been thought and said”; the dreamy loveliness of poetry and trees.
But beauty isn’t truth, and truth isn’t beauty, and the naïve belief that that might be the case is the very thing that allows for unexamined faith in seductive truisms, the acceptance of facile reasoning, a fear of the (often productive) role of boredom, flight from the real, disregard of worthwhile ideas poorly framed, and impassioned endorsement of the most violent regimes.
So the work of the humanities, I propose, is to attune ourselves, our students, our publics, to the quiet and subtle meanings implicit in language, maxims, historical narratives, images, representations, and common sense. Encouraging this attunement, which we often refer to as “critical thinking,” involves empowering people to listen, read, and act in the world with greater consciousness and intentionality. It means equipping ourselves to resist the seduction of propaganda and advertising. It means helping us more clearly to recognize our own principles and goals in the context of a culture the shape of which is never given. It means helping us to think historically, which means as much for our present actions, which can reverberate in the longue durée, as it does for our understanding of events in the past.
Love is important, of course, and so are books. But the caring attention to the things of this world to which the humanities call us, and in which they instruct us, is not about entertainment and consumerist delight. It is about action in the world. It is about awareness, ethics, strategic thinking, empowerment, resistance to the given, responsibility in the present, and the thinking of real possibilities that unexamined “common sense” cannot recognize. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies, and the humanities attempts to help us dream them.