Wednesday, September 21, 2005
Studying the Humanities has Political Effects
A provocative article by William Greider, "Defining a New 'New Deal'" got me thinking about how studying the humanities can have real political effects.
Following the events of Hurricane Katrina, he writes:
"A profound political question is suddenly on the table: Must the country continue to give precedence to private financial gain and market determinism over human lives and broad public values? Or shall we now undertake a radical restoration on behalf of society and people?"
An over emphasis of the individual, of privacy over public good, of personal benefit against social well-being seems to be an accurate assessment, and thereby a disturbing indictment of current American attitudes, assumptions and values. While most of us would support recognizing a certain level of personal autonomy and freedom, it's becoming increasingly clear that completely ignoring the public, the social, the collective, is a mistake. It's a mistake because it neglects, even denies, a large portion of who we are as human beings: beings in relationship with others. Acting as if we are simply, and perhaps exclusively, individuals flattens us to a sad shadow of what it means to be human. We lose insight, awareness and appreciation of our role in the diverse world around us.
Studying the humanities provides us an opportunity to examine what it means to be human. It reminds us how inadequate it is to understand ourselves as autonomous beings, and subjects separate and independent from all others. The humanities provide resources for us to discover the complexity and inter-relations between what we know and what constitutes "what's out there." Put differently, it helps us expand our sense of self to include the other. It's a real technique for buffering the current American emphasis on "private financial gain." In this way, studying the humanities can have real political effects because it can awaken us to a different set of values and inspire us to shape our government appropriately.