October 30, 2009

Where is pleasure in the humanities crisis?

Filed under: POV — dhi @ 6:54 pm

By Karl Zender, a Professor Emeritus of English

Professor de la Peña has asked me to expand on a question I posed for Andrew Delbanco at the October 22 Public Intellectuals Forum, about the challenges posed in recent years to the term “humanities” and about whether the term continues to designate a set of values and beliefs widely shared by scholars and teachers of language, literature, and the arts.

With apologies, I’m not going to do this. Instead, I’m going to ruminate for a moment about another question I would have liked to have asked. As an emeritus professor of English, I no longer teach. But when I did, at the beginning of the quarter I’d often put the phrase “Literature is a form of _________” on the blackboard and invite students to fill in the blank. I wasn’t looking for the “right” answer—I don’t think that there is a single right answer—but sooner or later I would let my students know that my own preferred completion is “pleasure.” (Sometimes, if I was lucky, this would lead to a discussion of the difference between intellectual and physical pleasure, between literary pleasure and entertainment, and of the fascination of what’s difficult.)

So this is the question I would have liked to have asked: What role does pleasure play in the “crisis” of the humanities? What role does it play in the distrust of the humanities evident in those sectors of American society (and of the academy) unsympathetic to non-utilitarian education? What opportunity—and what obligation—does it provide for the enrichment of our students’ lives and for a deepening of their understanding of the world in which they live?

In the current economic climate, with students desperately wanting to establish a foothold in a world of dwindling opportunities and resources, enhancing students’ ability to experience pleasure may seem a frivolous objective, something easily jettisoned in favor of pursuits more fundamental to the hierarchy of human needs.

I don’t believe it is. The professor who most profoundly shaped my life once said to me that he would not have become a teacher of literature had he not believed that the need for beauty is as central to human existence as is the need for food, shelter, or clothing. Even in the concentration camps, he said, people made art.

In my own experience, this has proven true. I once wrote a letter to Dateline in which I said that literature had saved my life, in the sense of giving me access to an understanding of my existence more capacious than the somewhat straitened circumstances of my childhood and adolescence had allowed. A child of working-class parents, neither of whom had gone past the eighth grade in school, growing up in the hills of southern Ohio, I remember vividly the transformative power of my first reading of William Faulkner’s fiction about poor southerners. “Oh,” I said to myself, “beauty doesn’t just belong to rich people.”

In a sense, the pleasure that this insight offered me, and the pleasure granted me by the following fifty years of reading, links back to the question Professor de la Peña asked me to discuss. A bookmark popular a few years ago featured a quotation from W.H. Auden: “Some books are unjustly forgotten; no book is unjustly remembered.” As instructors, we now greet a student body many of whose members arrive at Davis with backgrounds as straitened as my own, but far different geographically and with far different ethnic and cultural content.

Our opportunity (and our obligation) as instructors in the humanities, it seems to me, is to honor both halves of Auden’s observation: to bring into our curricula materials, often formerly ignored, that speak directly to our students’ lives; and to help them see the enduring relevance of materials seemingly alien in time and distance. When we succeed in achieving these goals, we make available to our students, and to ourselves, one of the finest pleasures that human life affords.

1 Comment »

  1. I was recently invited to a conference in Riverton, Wyoming (on the Wind River Reservation of the Arapahoe and Shoshone), to speak alongside my colleagues from the Art of Regional Change (ARC) project. The Wyoming Humanities Institute was interested in making a push for public humanities projects across the state, and they called the conference in order to showcase existing models of such collaboration.

    The conference was opened by Nancy Freudenthal, partner of Governor Dave Freudenthal, with a defense of the tangible social and economic goods that spring from a strong humanistic education. As grateful as I was to hear her support, something did not sit quite right about the way the conference was being framed. After several other speakers followed Freudenthal’s lead, I realized that we were all at risk of internalizing the kind of economic rationale we use tactically in our negotiations with deans, presidents, regents, etc., for greater resources. I am certain that much of what we as humanists value will not survive this kind of economism.

    So I rewrote my portion of the keynote presentation to try to undercut that logic. The analogy I finally alighted upon was one of eating. While the utilitarian portions of society–and academia–bring more and different food to the table, I pointed out that the humanities arrive empty-handed and go to work on our appetites instead. In terms of satisfaction, then, the humanities are just as valuable as the sciences and professions, though their value can never be stated in the language of accumulation spoken by our economy.

    As an example, I picked out one photograph posted online by a youth in Calaveras county during the ARC project there. It is a totally nondescript photo of some tire ruts in clay, filled with runoff from a recent storm (link: http://bp2.blogger.com/_rHtixE7uSrU/R-HHdWUeEvI/AAAAAAAAABw/vHXNFTOVToM/s1600-h/mud+puddle.jpg). The young woman’s blog comments start off apologetically, noting that she was simply playing with her camera at the time. But then she directs the viewer to the top-left sliver of her photo, where barely visible is a reflection of the ring of pine trees that encircle the mud puddle. This is what she wrote:

    “I took this picture because i thought that it sort of represents the “dryness” per say; that there is not much happening, it is kind of old fashioned type of town in west point. But then i look around and i see reflections, such as in a mud puddle. I turn and i see a flag..a tree..so much beauty that one needs to seek, but it is involentary. When you look for the beauty, you see more ugly. But you find it in unexpected places..such as a mud puddle.”

    Our project rationale for ARC says all the right things about helping the voice of the impoverished and marginalized find a platform and an audience, about educating those our society has tried hard to abandon, about participating in the economic renaissance of depressed regions of the state. All those are worthy goals, and they may well be accomplished, but can they compete with the value of learning to savor the life one already leads? Only the humanities can offer this kind of alternative value system, an economy of pleasure without which we will all be much poorer.

    Comment by Michael Ziser — November 5, 2009 @ 9:37 pm

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