Wednesday, October 26, 2011

An Argument Against The Argument Against Humanities

by a programmer in a cubicle

We've all been in the following situation, but reacted to it differently. A party rolls. Before everyone is too drunk to form rational thoughts, a debate emerges on a side of one room between some bachelors of science. Perhaps about a new bacterium discovered that there is no known effective anti-biotic for. Micro and Molecular are the foundation of the argument, but also Chem-E and Physics are chiming in. That's when Art and Philosophy show up, and one 'macrophage' misuse later they are glared out of the talk, the room in fact. Once they are out of earshot that old self flattering rhetorical question falls on the remaining ears: "What the fuck do you do with a philosophy degree?" The follow up 9 out of 10 times: "Work at Barnes and Nobles." The real answer: something we've been doing less and less of every decade, you think.

The dismissal of studies in pure humanities boils down to what everything in our society whittles into, money. In order to bring the breads home these days you have to distinguish yourself from your peers, or in today speak: the competition. Those on the engineering and science paths have essentially two ways to self dignify in modern academia: cram harder to boost their GPA and focus their knowledge. Too many people know biology, even at a level that schools have decided arbitrarily to call an A, so you hone on genetics. In your masters focus on a sequence or two. By Ph.d reception you know everything there is to know about a handful or reactions that happen in a space thousands of times smaller than a grain of sand. But what about the big picture?

Engineers enter the field with a broad knowledge base of mathematics and analytical thinking. Within five years at a company they are either experts on one class library and its uses in one software application or they calibrate one cog inside an enormous oiled machine. You become the ultimate tool to your company, but could there be better uses for your brain cells on a broader scale? It doesn't matter. Specialize or die. Focus or fuck off.

Pure humanities flows in the opposite way, from stream to ocean. Most can't fathom the purpose of a degree in Russian literature. What does she know, really? Well our Russian lit student needs to write a thesis. She can read Anna Karenina 300 times, but she likely won't find anything there that hasn't already been documented by thousands. So she brushes up on Tolstoy to find out what influenced his ways, which leads into detailed reading of Russian history during his time. Soon shes knee deep in marxism, political thought, individual thought post enlightenment, psychology, and just as she flips the page on an essay by Heidegger a light bulb goes off. A connection no one has made. A few semesters and 90,000 words later she has a degree. Perhaps with not much monetary value. But when she reads the daily news on her laptop that web of information is present. Also are those hundreds of thousands of pages she has read, researched. The unique connections will continue to form. And its in her nature to write about them, to share. And whether its a blog, article, or book some will find it, read it, and the tree of knowledge grows another leaf. Doctors and bankers aren't going home after 18 hour shifts and polishing up novels or touching up paintings. Who will stock the libraries, the museums, put words in the newspapers?

And if we return to our cocktail party a layer of hypocrisy reveals itself. Plant cells need to be studied to the finest detail in order to warrant thoughtful debate. But arts and life; you simply need to know enough to seem like you know enough to show people at a cocktail party that you know everything there is to know. How hard Art's and Philosophy's eyes must roll at times when the lab coats and suits talk politics. Another headline spat out about Sara Palin's latest missquote. The left and the right are bad. "Its all just politics. Everything comes down to money." Quite the thesis. Bravo! How many tongues I've seen bleeding from being bitten upon as a self proclaimed arts expert nearby went on about Magritte, Dali, and Escher - the only three human beings to have ever graced a canvas. And the patient sighs I've pitied as every conversation she had about fiction he turned into a default worship of Hunter S. Here's a fun drinking game. Go up to a group of males between the ages of 18-30 and say "I like books." Do a shot whenever someone says one of these film popularized go to's: Clockwork O, Fight Club, Easton Ellis, and the most recent addition The Road. Chances are you need to take a seat now. Can we get a glass of water for my friend here? 

You pepper a sentence with a few financial acronyms brace yourself for some oohhs and aahhs. CDO^2 FTW beeotch. But the word 'ubermensch' comes out your lips, and you're labeled a snob. Immediately someone snaps a photo of you. Congratulations, you're now a hipster meme on the internet. But our attention deficit twitter generation should be partaking in as many genuine face to face conversations as possible. Just as we need economists discussing the latest trends in global trade, we need lit buffs chatting about the other 90% of shelves at the library. About the books without wizards. Otherwise they don't get written. Then where are we? The collective thought shrivels.

But the most alarming of trends I've seen is that the dismissal of humanities goes past pity bordering on mindless loathing. One would think that those willing to sacrifice creature comforts to study their passion would be applauded. Instead I see the opposite. Its not deemed a sacrifice; it's throwing your life away. Or even more radical - its not just throwing your life away; It's giving up on society. What can you do to help the world with a degree that will only land you a job as barista? It doesn't stop at "I'm not paying 50k for that. I won't let my kid throw his/her life away." I've even bore witness to "I won't let my kids study that useless shit!"

First off, this is the fault of society and the mindset it begets - not the starving artist and the dreamer student. Book stores are going out business. Even the largest newspapers in the world are struggling. Not because no one is willing to write for such low pay - someone always admirably steps into those shoes. But because no one is reading them (we merely scan headlines on smart phones). Seven figure salaries will seem meaningless when we enter a new dark age of thought. Have you been the movies recently? Every box office smash these days is a brick in the road toward Idiocracy.   

Second, the notion that these subjects (the ones many think can only be retaught once mastered) are useless to our universe is beyond ignorance. And we get to the greatest defense of humanities or simultaneously its greatest achievement. There's a saying, "Lawyers and generals wrote human history." Look in a history book, and tell me it ain't true. I did. Seems to me like 90% of these lawyers and generals are infamous not famous. Their legacies are byproducts of how incredibly long it takes for war scars to heal.

For modern history, changes in the more current timeline, you have to add scientists: Newton, Einstein, Pasteur, Darwin etc. Of course, maths and sciences are just as significant now in our race's pool of knowing. But indeed it's hard to name a dentist, teacher, pastor, accountant, of engineer whose influence stretches the globe and will do so timelessly. Even the workings of Gates, Bernanke, Jobs, Zuckerberg, the Waltons will fade over the course of time. Their influences are huge, but the peaks they forged are local maxima.

But perhaps you'll recognize these names: Socrates, Homer, Locke, Beethoven, Woolf, Voltaire, Descartes, Hobbes, Emerson, DaVicnci, Nietzsche, Nabokov, Bacon, Jung, Confucius, Kubrick. Some of these people died millennia ago, and their influences are still waves. Never ripples.

Businessmen, technicians, architects, doctors, and everyone else operate the world. A few lawyers and generals changed the world. Those listed there above; they changed the way we think about the world. They changed the collective consciousness of generations ad infinitum. You want to study their work, and try to create something of your own? You want to attempt to follow in their footsteps?

Please. By all means.

And if you want to beam some enlightenment in my direction about some movement in post WWII Italian avant-guarde film while we wait for the next round of flip cup to start....Fuck it. I encourage that to.