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Why Humanism has a future

By July 5, 2015December 20th, 2015No Comments

I think that’s what Clive James reveals in his awe inspiring work “Cultural Amnesia” – about which I think often.

From the introduction:

“(W)e are nowadays much more free to be thinkers than is commonly supposed.  The usual division is to treat our daily job as the adventure and our cultural diversions as a mere mechanism of renewal and repose.  But the adventurous jobs are becoming more predictable all the time, even at the level of celebrity and conspicuous material success.  Could there be anything less astonishing than to work day and night on Wall Street to make the millions that will buy the Picasso that will hang on the wall of our Upper East Side apartment to help convince us and our guests that we are lucky to know each other?  I have been in that apartment, and admired the PIcasso, and envied its owner:  I especially envied him his third wife, who had the same eyes as Picasso’s second mistress, although they were on different sides of her nose.  But I didn’t envy the man his job.  In the same week, I was filming in Greenwich Village, and spent an hour of down-time sitting in a cafe making my first acquaintance with the poetry of Anthony Hecht.  I couldn’t imagine living better.  The real adventure is no longer in the job.  In the job we can have a profile written about us, and be summed up:  all the profiles will be the same, and all the summaries add up to the same thing.  The real adventure is in what we do to entertain ourselves, a truth which the profile writers concede by trying to draw us out on our supposed addictions to shark fishing, fast cars, extreme skiing and expensive young women.  But even the entertainment an no longer be adventurous if it serves a purpose,  It will be adventurous only if it serves itself.  In other words, it will not be utilitarian.  It has always been part of the definition of humanism that true learning has no end in view except its own furtherance.”

There seems to be a consensus forming in the political classes that humanities must be driven out of academia in order to better support the nation’s economic future.  We would teach college students how to tear down cathedrals if the rock and quarry industry were hiring for it. This is a terrible idea on many practical levels, not the least of which being that the focused career training of today is absolutely terrible at predicting the economic needs of tomorrow.  More fundamentally, however, is the point that technical training and scientific education can – at most – decide the future of human technology.  No small thing.  But the future of humanity itself … and what it means to be human … will never be practical.  To be impractical is to be human.

The humanities endure not despite their uselessness, but because of it;  the reason the stories of Moses and King Arthur are still told even stone tablets and iron swords are no longer relevant technologies, the reason we still read poetry even though we have cat videos, is because these things are “valueless” in the same way they are “priceless” – no value can be fixed to them.  No number sticks.  Cities will rise and fall, railroads come and go, and refugees will always hold humanism to their breasts as they are chased from nation to nation … dying for music and theatre and myths in a way that no one will ever die for Google, or for texting, or even the human genome.

We pick technology up because it is useful, and put it down again just as casually.  The fruits of humanism are always clutched closely to our hearts.