Tuesday, June 11, 2013

"Fellow Humanists"

yahoo image, from Magruder HS in MD. 
“Fellow humanists.”  How rare that appellation. That’s how Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic magazine, began his commencement address at Brandeis University at the end of May 2013.  Brandeis, in Waltham, Mass, long a bastion of liberal arts education, continues to educate its students for a full life of the mind. The college is named after a great humanist jurist, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. It remains true to its source.   

I probably would not have seen Wieseltier’s talk if my humanist friend David from New York City, who now lives in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, hadn’t posted it on facebook.

I'm an historian and consider myself a humanist of sorts, but I never thought of myself as a “culture warrior.”  According to Wieseltier, if we believe in the power of the humanities to make life better, deeper and richer, then ipso facto, that’s what we are.

“Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less...and needed more?” Wieseltier asked.

He bemoaned the loss of humanistic study and understanding; decried the age of technology, dogmatism, and science in its narrow sense;  derided the lure of pragmatism over intellectual thought and exploration. “There is no task more urgent in American intellectual life at this hour than to offer some resistance to the twin imperialisms of science and technology....”

Adding to the crisis is “the machines to which we have become enslaved.”  As astonishing as they are, they “represent the greatest assault on human attention ever devised...engines of mental and spiritual dispersal...”

Humanists, he said to the graduates, “are the resistance...which is to say, you are the counterculture.  Perhaps culture is now the counterculture.”     

Culture as the counterculture. What does this mean? Do the humanities—history, philosophy, literature, anthropology—belong to the 'dustbin of history'? Are they frivolous luxuries, not vital to our daily lives, let alone to the work most Americans do or the jobs of the future? Can we fight the behemoths of the digital age, who think we can obliterate the differences between humans and machines? Are the humanities dead?

"Are you serious, Nana? Major in history or philosophy or literature?"  "It's an option, if you think of areas like international business,"  I suggest.
"Well then, I'll major in international business  But the humanities? No way. No jobs, no money, no security, no future."
"That sums it up," I reply. "Maybe a minor?"
"Maybe a  minor in German language," but I'll see, says granddaughter Alli, who just graduated from High School and is thinking about what to take to college in a few months. She's majoring in pre-med.
"Nana, we love you, but you may be the last humanities person we know on the planet!"

Hmm, I wonder if they're right. Are we "fellow humanists" fighting a losing battle? Or should we keep fighting, become part of the new counterculture, as Wieseltier urged? If we can't beat 'em, should we join 'em, somehow or other?
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