What Good Are the Humanities?

Craig Chalquist, PhD

Schooling has to do with the ability to master basic functions that can be measured by tests. Learning has to do with matters  of judgment, and with living responsibly and artfully, which cannot be measured so easily.
– David Orr

In the documentary Surfing L.A., James Hillman stated, “The test of psychology is not whether it works. That is the test of a new car…” Asked just what is the test of psychology, he replied, “Is it fun? Does it amuse you, does it delight you, does it wake you up? Does it talk to your soul? Does it say anything to your soul that makes you see further, or feel deeper or inspired more, or that the world around you is more animated, or that you’re more animated, or that there’s some beauty or some love, or some tragedy, or some real things happening?”

Pushing past literality, consciousness studies and the liberal (same root as liberty and liberation) arts allow us to question the fantasies and motifs moving behind the quest for fixes and solutions. The wide-angle lens of multidisciplinary thought steps back from culturally sanctioned obsessions with bare utility to problematize and contextualize them. It helps us see that questions of purpose and value, meaning and aliveness must precede questions like “what good is it” for such questions to make any sense. As Hillman, a lover of art and literature, points out, merely statistical considerations are no longer human—and no longer humane.

Deep psychology, the humanities, and the liberal arts are not just interesting paths of academic study. They grow and practice the human powers that make learning meaningful, liberatory, and sane to begin with. Their inherent polyvocality calls worldly action to conscience by inviting in choruses of culture normally relegated to the edges of public discourse. They educate us about the images and impulsions within the assumptions guiding what we do and how we see. They stir the heart: not just a pump in the chest but the ancient repository of image and affect. They ask: How can we possibly make our way in a troubled world without samples drawn from the breadth and depth of human experience? Before Hillman, analyst Erich Fromm pointed out that the chief danger faced by humanity is not the fiend or the psychopath, but the unmoved and obedient bureaucrat devoid of imagination. We might also add: devoid too of even the desire for a coherent picture of the world or one’s place in it.

It is no accident that fascistic impulses remain rampant in the United States, where “culture” has come to mean shopping, sitcoms, and the Stuporbowl. In Europe “culture” means Shakespeare and Dante, Beethoven and Brahms, languages and travel to other countries. A European who has not read Mary Shelley, Sappho, or Emily Bronte stands a good chance of at least recognizing having heard of them. Where ignorance and lack of learning flourish, violent fundamentalism is never far behind.

Psychologist Glen Slater points out that in two decades we will share our planet with a new species: part human, part machine, and no clear dividing line between the two. The interface between thought and circuitry has already been accomplished in the laboratory. Slater describes what precedes this new digitized arrival as “cyborgian drift,” the slide into a cool psychology of utility and control. What good are cosmology, deep psychology, or the humanities? None at all to a machine, perhaps, but to us they offer recollective remembrances of how to tend and safeguard our humanity.

The humanities can also tell us something important about what makes good leaders. President Abraham Lincoln never had any former higher education, but from early on he dedicated himself to self-education via the humanities. This excerpt from historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln gives a glimpse of how much Lincoln got from reading the right books:

Books became his academy, his college. The printed word united his mind with the great minds of generations past. Relatives and neighbors recalled that he scoured the countryside for books and read every volume “he could lay his hands on.” At a time when ownership of books remained “a luxury for those Americans living outside the purview of the middle class,” gaining access to reading material proved difficult. When Lincoln obtained copies of the King James Bible, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Aesop’s Fables, and William Scott’s Lessons in Elocution, he could not contain his excitement. Holding Pilgrim’s Progress in his hands, “his eyes sparkled, and that day he could not eat, and that night he could not sleep.” When printing was first invented, Lincoln would later write, “the great mass of men . . . were utterly unconscious, that their conditions, or their minds were capable of improvement.” To liberate “the mind from this false and under estimate of itself, is the great task which printing came into the world to perform.” He was, of course, also speaking of himself, of the transforming liberation of a young boy unlocking the miraculous mysteries of language, discovering a world of possibilities in the small log cabin on the frontier that he later called “as unpoetical as any spot of the earth.” “There is no Frigate like a Book,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “to take us Lands away.” Though the young Lincoln never left the frontier, would never leave America, he traveled with Byron’s Childe Harold to Spain and Portugal, the Middle East and Italy; accompanied Robert Burns to Edinburgh; and followed the English kings into battle with Shakespeare.

As he explored the wonders of literature and the history of the country, the young Lincoln, already conscious of his own power, developed ambitions far beyond the expectations of his family and neighbors. It was through literature that he was able to transcend his surroundings.

Everywhere he went, Lincoln carried a book with him. He thumbed through page after page while his horse rested at the end of a long row of planting. Whenever he could escape work, he would lie with his head against a tree and read. Though he acquired only a handful of volumes, they were seminal works of the English language. Reading the Bible and Shakespeare over and over implanted rhythms and poetry that would come to fruition in those works of his maturity that made Abraham Lincoln our only poet-president.