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There’s Something Better Than Power
31 January 2007

When was the United States ever kind to its artists, writers, philosophers?  At what date was the historian’s memory held in high esteem?  Even Britney Spears or George W. ought to be able to guess the answer is “never.”  And not a reluctant, embarrassed, we’ve been remiss but trust us we’ll get around to redressing the grievance “never,” either.  Americans, by and large, are proud as Milton’s Lucifer of their disdain for anyone or thing that might vaguely resemble the categories creative and intellectual.  Non serviam!  I reveal no state secret in saying this, though so much these days is a matter of national security.

But if in past decades donning the fool’s costume of poet or playwright was a difficulty, if we locked Dickinson in an attic and chased William S. Burroughs and Ginsburgh through the jazz bars like Keystone Kops to charge them with obscenity – if you had to pay your dues to sing the blues – in the world remade by our neo-conservative Puritans, we have a different, worse problem.

No, it isn’t inadequate funding for the humanities; the States will never adequately fund the humanities.  The problem is standardization and specialization.

The humanities depend, to put it bluntly, on people who are not like most folks.  Plus they depend on most folk being passingly acquainted with them.  But our schools do not presently promote either practitioner or appreciation. 

While most find our education system, geared as it is toward specializing in “a job,” tolerable and are as easily whittled into nice puzzle pieces as balsa wood – puzzle pieces who will pretty much fit together to produce the larger picture of the market economy in all its glory – the thinker, artist, writer, poet are born with souls made of more recalcitrant stuff.

Hack at them all you wish, the outcome will likely be rough if the production of a “useful citizen” is your sole ideal.  Such people rarely tend to render anything of immediate value to society, their pursuits are not economically profitable or justifiable (though, of course, after their deaths their products may become collectible commodities).  Pound for pound, a crate of sausages is worth more than your average philosopher in the evaluation of our young people, educated as they were in schools bent toward neo-con ideals of efficiency and measurability.

Of course for such a worthless tribe as the intellectuals are, we have the universities to provide employment.  Some misfits and malcontents can be housed there, subsidized by the business and science departments, and in their happily cloistered lives they will influence no one, thus do little harm to the Republicans’ evident plan to dismantle every government program except those that make them money or protect their investments.  Our quirky cenobites can be kept busy going through the motions teaching students who could care less about the glories of Greece and Rome, the history of injustices, the possibility of a rational ethics – that or happily churn out opaquely written articles read only by others initiated into their cabal.

What of the rest, the vast majority not employed at a university or community college, not selling art, not singing for their supper?  They will pretend to get along by taking jobs they don’t care about (always while working on that novel they will finish one day, just you watch); that or maybe they wind up in jail or in some 12 Step program that serves to help keep them in line.  Indeed, meaningless jobs, jail, recovery, all these take up plenty of a creative person’s time, keep them off the streets and out of the uncluttered, blank, hypnotized American consciousness.

We don’t want intellectuals and artists in America; we want scientists, mathematicians and engineers.  Scientists, mathematicians and engineers are good for the economy; they are essential for the defense system.  We want businesspeople: they are good for the economy, good for arranging the puzzle-pieces of the common people into a proper order – they are good for the Republican Party.  We want people who are extremely good at understanding only one thing, people who intentionally put on blinders to ignore contexts in order to pick out a single detail, pursue a job.

Mathematically grounded science, for example, strains reality through a sieve of theories and make it understandable by reducing existence to something called “matter.”  Matter is a mathematically describable, measurable thing, something manipulable.   Thus, science makes a portion of reality useful and reveals to us, through technology, our power.  It is no wonder political movements might tend to worship this aspect of science.

But science, being only one perspective on reality, a limited, specialized one, misses most of existence.  It doesn’t tell us who we are, whom we should be, where we are in history and how we got here.  Science is ultimately about our power over reality; the humanities are about our limitations, coming to grips with our mortality.  Specialization develops our capacities; the humanities suggest directions for and restraints on their use.  Science and technology are our pride, but the humanities are our humility.

Before anyone can humanely take up a specialized job, she has first to specialize in generalized knowledge, the knowledge of contexts.  And that means at least two things: we need to value a general, humanities-based education over one heavy on job training, science and math, and we need to value the strange, creative people who are drawn to the humanities.

No, neo-conservatives by and large are not going to support this.  It won’t help them invade countries, drill oil, or bilk investors in the name of free trade; in fact, such a change in cultural emphasis might reign in their dreams of empire, limitless wealth and consumption.  And a society of citizens who have received a good generalist education might be more difficult to propagandize.  After all, there’d be a lot less balsa wood lying around.





Richard Van Ingram
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