Thomas's Rant

Story, myth, writings

Whither humanities? (Or perhaps ‘wither’…?)

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imagesWhat is the point of studying the humanities in a bottom-line, increasingly utilitarian society?

Utilitarian values are overemphasised in our society which is largely preoccupied with wealth, power, politics, and (dare I say it) science. It is not that these values are unworthy but that they are overemphasised to the exclusion of much else. The point of the humanities, I think, resides in the values of emotional intelligence, social ability, creative expression and psychological development – all these values are generally ignored by the general public, government, educational institutions, and the media. By ignored I mean that these ‘creative’ abilities are treated rather like language in an illiterate culture, that is, something which is *assumed* to be a matter of general knowledge and experience but which is often in a very basic, undeveloped state. When major social problems occur in relation to these neglected areas, we tend to be quick to find utilitarian ’causes’ and propose utilitarian ‘solutions’ (which mysteriously fail to work). For example, alcohol-fuelled violence has to do with the excessively late opening hours of bars or lack of proper police funding and nothing to do with a perceived lack of life meaning or emotional development. Even when advertisements are ‘blamed’ for major mental emotional conditions such as gambling or drug addiction, the ‘solution’ is a public awareness campaign – as if mere rational awareness could counter a strong emotional compulsion.

The humanities can help counter this misplaced focus by encouraging practice in and development of social abilities, emotional intelligence, creative skills etc. However, the utilitarian mindset has infiltrated the humanities as well rendering much of it largely ineffective and rather pointless. Critical writing skills are important but massively overemphasised in universities, where most students learn little else (I often joke that I am doing a ‘Bachelor of Essay-Writing’). Assessment is graded quantitatively and statistically as if arts subjects were in the science or maths faculty. Humanities desperately needs a more qualitative marking scheme and an injection of creative thinking – the very process I argue that it is supposed to be teaching. Essays are very good for encouraging student learning through research, but so would painting a picture (of an historical personage or scene perhaps), writing a poem, running a seminar or making a video. I have virtually never encountered a tutor or lecturer who actively advocated techniques of performance for class presentations, of social interaction when involved in class discussions, or even creative writing techniques in assessments – as usual these are all ‘assumed’ and pass as if invisible. I have never heard a tutor make critical remarks to a student regarding a well-researched but frankly boring and unengaging class presentation. The learning environment is generally sterile with human interaction facilitated largely by accident. Lectures need more open-ended questions and audience interaction; tutorials need a more creative active – even physical – interaction (sitting at desks is creative death no matter how scattered or round the tables are).

There are cultural and ideological problems in modern society which I believe arts education should be resisting or transforming rather than falling prey to. The biggest of these problems is the perceived lack of a sole ideological or religious truth upon which to base emotional values. This perceived lack of a single truth has led to the conviction that there IS no truth, therefore there is no ‘appropriate’ values, judgment, conviction or intuition to be ‘taught’ – hence the almost blanket refusal to discuss such fundamental values. But this is simply another example of utilitarian thinking – of undeveloped creative/emotional skills. The relativity of all values means not that there is a LACK of truth, but that there is a GLUT, a MULTIPLICITY, of truths, all waiting to be explored and developed for the individual, society, culture and the present situation.

We can resist this misplaced utilitarianism in the arts:
1. by focussing on this multiplicity of viewpoints, building up a repertoire of social, creative, individual and aesthetic skills in students which they have the flexibility to apply in varied situations (not just in classrooms or in academic journals or newspapers)
2. by researching and exploring the UNIVERSAL emotions, interactions, and life stages revealed to us by evolutionary psychology and other cultural traits common to all humanity (these are not and cannot be dead – only poorly developed)
3. by recognising and rewarding NOVELTY of expression, ideas, and interaction within a FUNCTIONAL human framework (as outlined by the functions of point 2) – novelty must occur within structure to avoid an ‘anything goes’ mentality
4. by focussing explicitly on the experiential basis of learning and content – avoiding the formulaic, the “rational”, “ideological” and the “moral” approaches to human creativity (these are as misguided as the “irrational”, “emotional”, and “mystic” approaches to science). Understanding that emotion is an ineffable and visceral experience is essential to developing compassion let alone all the other social emotions. It is more important than reason or academic essay-writing. Getting out there and making a presentation, organising a group, exploring an idea is more important, more ‘educational’, than writing yet another dry literary essay, no matter how many obscure footnotes. Many psychologists and neurologists now recognise that the development of moral capabilities in students is not likely to be helped by teaching them a set of precepts unless their emotional capacities are also well nurtured. (In this respect the teaching of the rationality-obsessed Enlightenment philosophers and their ideas is actively HARMFUL to a creative arts endeavour – except as an example of creatively misguided thinking, and I’m not sure that we need more examples of that!)

In sum, I argue that the humanities are generally poorly or ineffectually taught, but desperately needed. Significantly, if you treat the arts in an inappropriately utilitarian way, you find them more and more ineffective and pointless. It is rather like complaining that ballet dancers should be employing the utilitarian skills of walking and then complaining that the ballet is ineffective, rather pointless and uninspiring.


Written by tomtomrant

31 August 2013 at 10:08 pm

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