What’s a humanities?

SAM SMITH, DC GAZETTE, 1979 – I have to confess something. I have strayed from the civic abstinence I promised on these pages a while back. I have once again joined a committee. But it’s just a small committee and I think I can handle it. If not, drive me home and I’ll never do it again. Promise.

The committee is called the DC Community Humanities Council. Fifty states and Puerto Rico have such committees – and the funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities that follow in their wake – but DC, through a combination of federal inertia and local indifference, has been years late to the gate. . .

I was invited to serve on the committee by the NEH for reasons that are not entirely clear, but presumably have something to do with what is known in the trade as “community outreach,” or, as Senator Scoop Jackson put it even less felicitously the other day, providing another “rung on the spectrum.” Since I had complained in print about the lack of a local humanities committee, I thought I ought to put some time where my mouth was. But there was another less honorable reason for my willingness to accept the invitation. You see, what the folks at NEH don’t know is that not only did I graduate from college magna cum probation but I was so indifferent to the humanities and scholarship in general that my English instructor once sent me a neatly written card that read: “Mr. Cole requests the pleasure of your attendance at the next regular meeting of his course.” Many of the courses I did attend left me thoroughly befuddled. The first hint that joining the fellowship of educated men was going to be a treacherous business came when I returned to my room after the initial day of classes. I settled down to dash off a bit of Max Weber before supper. Ten pages in my heart went into a barrel roll and my hands began to rattle. I hadn’t understood one word the man was saying. This exquisite form of panic would return many times over the next four years.

I struggled to separate the thoughts of Locke from the sermons of Cotton Mather; Veblin and Bentham congealed in my brain; Karl Marx was, as far as I could discern, the opiate of sadistic professors; and when I walked into an examination hall I was certain that all around me could balance more philosophers within the margins of a blue book than I. The die was cast early as one of my anthropology professors noted on a paper. “This is pretty good journalism,” she wrote of my painfully conceived review of the Naga situation, “but it is bad anthropology.” I left the ivy-bedizened halls vowing never to return and, in fact, never did except for an occasional guest talk to the class of a professor or two of eccentric tastes. So for me to be invited to share responsibility for the fate of the humanities with genuine, certified, dissertating scholars was too good an offer to pass up – not unlike an ex-con being asked to serve on a judicial nominations commission.

So of course I accepted. This first thing that happened was a friend, when I told her of the project, described herself as “one of nine people in the city who knows what the humanities are.” I passed on the remark to an historian who asked, “Don’t you think that figure is a little high?”

Right away I knew I was in trouble. One of the real pleasures of graduating from college is that seldom thereafter does anyone ask you to define your terms. I had been away from the academic world for twenty years and had sort of assumed that in the interim they had come up with handy definitions for things like the “humanities.” But apparently we were heading for square one — back to Humanities 10: “Define the humanities and illustrate by example, citing sources where applicable.” .

It all came back. The slush of ideas, concepts, symbolisms, metaphors, imagery, and philosophies through which I had so laboriously slogged during college, and so assiduously avoided since, was underfoot once more and I could feel my socks getting wet and clammy.

I had voluntarily agreed to serve a cause whose meaning and purpose I thought I understood, but which I couldn’t decently explain to anyone who didn’t understand. I had done so somewhat whimsically and capriciously, in part because I sensed it all had something to do with constructive irrelevance, a subject which has come to interest me after years of excessive relevance and the not totally satisfying product of the same. It also seemed to favor my anarchistic side, since the humanities like to ask questions without providing answers while politics tends to provide answers without asking questions. Further, humanists have a reputation for not doing anything useful, so perhaps if I became associated with them, people would stop asking me to do things that were useful.

But that would hardly do when we had to go out and explain what we were about and why anyone should be interested. You can’t tell a sullen scribe from one of the dailies who asks “What do you see as the role of the humanities in this city?” something like, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.” So I decided I better find out what a humanities really was before the National Endowment blew my cover and decided that this community outreach business had gone far enough. Here is some of what I found:

The word humanities doesn’t mean much to most people. Most people to whom it does mean much work on college campuses. For them it means pretty much what it did when I was in college: it’s what you major in if you’re not in the physical or social sciences, haven’t decided what to do with your life or want to go to law school but would like to learn something first.

Here are some of the humanities: philosophy, comparative religion, history, ethics, literature.

Here is one thing the humanities have in common: you feel a little foolish listing them on a job application form.

That may be one reason that most people who know about the humanities are found on college campuses: no one else will hire them.

There’s another reason: Some people on campus feel that the humanities shouldn’t be talked about too much off campus. They feel the humanities are a profession and that you should have a Ph.D. to be “in” them. They want people to treat them like physicians and lawyers and CPAs and lieutenant colonels, so they call each other ‘Doctor’ a lot.

It is confusing because it suggests that you might need a license to think about literature, religion, history or philosophy. This is not necessarily true. It is still further confusing because humanities scholars, when they’re not calling themselves ‘Doctor,’ call themselves “humanists.” Off campus, the word sometimes has a different meaning. The woman down the street may be called “a real humanist” because she set up a senior citizen center or organized the heart drive, even though she doesn’t know who Kierkegaard was. You can’t be a humanist on campus without knowing who Kierkegaard was, no matter how much you raise for the heart fund.

Finally, it is confusing because in many people’s minds, a doctor is meant to fix something. Humanist-type doctors are hard-pressed to prove that they do. And in our scientific and technological society, we tend to discount what can’t be proved. There is no morality program you can slip into the computer, no antibiotic against cultural vacuity, no certifiable benefits to be achieved through an acquaintance with the past and no minimum daily requirement for literature.

I think a part of what the National Endowment for the Humanities is trying to do is to end some of this confusion. This is good because even though the word “humanities” is not used that much off campus, we use what it describes all the time. We just don’t have a name for it.

We practice it without a license and without credit. Some of the biggest issues of our lives are concerns of the humanities. Like whether we accept a politician’s definition of “acceptable risk” at a nuclear power plant. Like publicly funded abortions or legalized gambling or how we distribute political power .

These are also political questions and their philosophical, historical or religious core often gets hidden behind the politics, which is too bad because good politics is a poor substitute for a good philosophy, whereas good philosophy can makes good politics.

Our best presidents, for example, were those who convinced people not just of their politics but of its philosophical or ethical base. The New Deal, the War on Poverty, the civil rights legislation and the Peace Corps would never have gotten off the ground if people hadn’t accepted the philosophy before the politics.

We need, as Martin Marty said, a place from which to view the world. The media and the merchandisers would like us to think otherwise. They want us to acquiesce in their plan to create packaged consumers for their packaged products – whether it be artificial eggs, a new TV series or a president. They would like us to want more than to be. The thing that keeps us in rebellion is a part of what the humanities are about. This is the revolutionary aspect of the National Endowment for the Humanities. It proposes to fund the dangerous notion that we can still think for ourselves. That we still want to know why we do things as well as when and how much it will cost. That we still have some choices left. . .

Whatever a humanities is, it used to be different. Rod French, a scholar at George Washington University who happens to be both an academic and a non-academic humanist, described it this way in a paper prepared for the National League of Cities:

“At the opening of the modern age, in the city states of Italy in the 14th and 15th centuries, humanist scholars and poets handled state correspondence, represented their sovereigns as diplomatic emissaries and wrote orations for great civic occasions. But already in the 16th century, this whole class of scholars began a long decline into disgrace and neglect. Their ambition and poor judgment was responsible in part, but they were also the victims of deep social changes. The rise of the middle class and the democratic revolutions of the 18th century further displaced humanists from positions of influence. And then industrialization placed a premium on a set of new skills. Those who persisted in studying the humanities were forced to the margins of public life. . . .In the Renaissance, the term humanist referred to men (almost exclusively} who dedicated themselves to the study of the humanities. That happened to mean to them the study of the literature and history and politics and ethics and art of classical Greece and Rome. Today, hardly anyone in public life feels they need a humanist and few humanists feel they need a public life . . .

“The only way to get the humanist down from the ivory tower is to drag him into public affairs. If his alleged contribution proves in actual experience to be trivial or ephemeral, then the game is up. If the managers of society refuse even to give his questions a hearing then we can conclude fairly that they are not really friends of the good society.”

Here is one more historical note: Tocqueville called the French Revolution the first great event in history brought about by men of letters. The Russian Revolution was another. So, as late as this century, some humanists have been found relevant.

The National Endowment for the Humanities says that all programs funded by state humanities committees should have “scholars involved centrally.” Artists can get money from their national endowment without scholars being centrally involved in their sculpture or dance. Governments are more leery of unformed ideas than they are of unformed stone, which may be why federally funded thinking must be accompanied by licensed personnel. I think humanities scholars should have to prove that their ideas are worth something, just like anyone else, but they’re on the dole far less than most groups, there isn’t much risk that they will turn into a mandarin class in the near future, and they need the money, so what the hell. You can always pull the anchovies off the pizza if you don’t like them..

One of the problems with defining the humanities is that it is hard to do anything well without them. A doctor or a nuclear physicist who isn’t also a humanist can cause a lot of trouble. One of the purposes of the humanities is to give some direction to the other things we do. The humanities are often at their most potent when they modify something else rather than being just an end. Of course, you don’t have to justify interest in the humanities on the basis of social utility. After all, the Declaration of Independence ranked the pursuit of happiness only after life and liberty as a basic right. It hasn’t fared so well since. The humanities, among other things, have to do with the pursuit of happiness. As Hubert Humphrey said when the bill establishing the National Endowment passed, “At last the Congress voted for fun; at last the Congress voted and said let’s have something that celebrates the rights of man to sheer fun.”

But, then again, we may be too late. Newsweek seems to think so. It ran a headline over a book review recently that read: “Albert Camus: The Last of the Humanists.” I hope not. . .

So what’s a humanities? I can’t really give you one answer. But I can give you several. It’s asking why before we say yes. It’s remembering something someone wrote two centuries ago when we can’t remember what we wrote yesterday. It’s mistakes we don’t have to make because they’ve already been made and solutions we don’t have to dream up because someone has already thought of them. It’s how we got where we are and where we might go from here. It’s things we can’t measure yet know have depth and breadth. It’s parts of our culture we might lose like the Indian tribe writing its language down and putting it in a book. It’s parts of our culture that we’re often slow to recognize as such, like the legislature in Georgia finally making “Georgia on My Mind” the state song and inviting Ray Charles to come down and sing it. It’s the moral, philosophical, and historical issues hidden behind the political babble. It’s rights and beliefs and their protection. It’s preserving the past and the future and not just exploiting today. It’s thinking as well as talking, questioning as well as answering. And it’s placing human values and culture at the center of our world and making machines and technology and Channel Seven serve us rather than the other way around.

If we talk about things like these, we’ll be talking humanities whether we know it or not. And I think we’ll be reminded that they really do matter. And have all along.

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