The following post was written by Beau Hilton, one of the Humanities Center’s Snow Fellows.
Please forgive the cliché. New Year’s blog posts are worn out and profligate, and this one even commits the crime of tardiness. However I try to remain aloof from the notions and gyrations of New Year reflections and resolutions, I find myself part of the crowd, considering who I was and what I did last year and who I would like to be and what I am determined to do this year. And, worst of all, just when I thought I was through 2014-2015’s 48-hour season of anxiety and hope (exhausting, both), I was dredged up to yet more reflection and resolution by two articles I read yesterday, one a New York Times op-ed, the other a Chronicle of Higher Education review. Both of these articles evoked in me a sense of deep sadness, accompanied by a small headache and a fleeting urge to never read another review or op-ed. (Delicious irony, endless hypocrisy, I find myself here writing exactly that which I nearly swore off). The first is from David Brooks, and deals with what he sees as society’s obsession with “meaning” even while it has abandoned structures that, in his opinion, give meaning its meaning. The second is from Arthur Krystal, who argues for the preservation of (but, wisely, not the exact form or content of) the literary canon. Both of these authors are wrestling with the twin beasts of tradition and progression, and outline what solutions to the problems might look like.
I find much to agree with in both articles. For example, I take no issue whatever with Brooks’ assertion that “… it has to be said, as commonly used today, the word [‘meaning’] is flabby and vacuous, the product of a culture that has grown inarticulate about inner life.” Society has grown quite adept at creating and rating products; this collective thinking seems to be actively improving the things we use. But, as the intelligentsia and prophets have equally bemoaned since Prometheus, our inner lives have not kept up with the continually improving technological richness of our outer lives. Brooks describes my own situation clearly—I can easily shout in all caps across cyberspace from the comfort of my tin can, but I bumble moronically when it comes to profound expression. Brooks’ answer to the question of meaning is communicated from a few case studies (Mandela, Schweitzer, Lincoln) correlated with their “moral systems — whether secular or religious — that recommended specific ways of being, and had specific structures of what is right and wrong, and had specific disciplines about how you might get better over time.” That is, the answer is structure, and the question matters little. This I disagree with.
Next, moving to the other article, I agree with every fiber of my continually clichéd being with this statement from Krystal: “Some books simply reflect a deeper understanding of the world, of history, of human relationships, of literature itself than do other books.” He is, as mentioned, defending the existence of a canon, and mourning its loss into the hyperpluralistic world of post-postmodern studies. The humanities, their academic forms shepherded by institutions including the Center hosting this blog post, are all about finding the “deeper understanding” Krystal mentions. We seek the inherent richness of human experience through art, high and low, and attempt to add to our collective ability to feel this richness through analysis, creative work, and the occasional blog post. My disagreement with Krystal’s overall message comes in response to his implicit assertion, repeated in various guises throughout his article, that “some books” can be put into “some list.” That is, the answer to the question of which works of art are worth our time is, as it was more generally for Brooks, codification and structure.
The sadness that characterized my response to the pieces from Brooks and Krystal has its root not in their admittedly traditional and conservative (though, somehow, reflexively hip) viewpoints, nor in the idea that codes and structures have some use, nor in the horrifically clichéd notion that the world is somehow declining in general intelligence, morality, and humanity (every generation at least as far back as the ancient Greeks has lamented the accelerating degradation of good old-fashioned values, and yet we somehow have farther to fall). The sadness, exhaustion really, comes from living through yet another encounter with the sophomoric urge to prematurely solve, resolve, and thereby restrain the beautiful problems of reality. Or, put in other words, both writers and the styles of thinking they represent seek to fix reality (that is, secure and make solid or, in that old alchemical sense, “deprive of volatility or fluidity”) by way of list-making, codification, etc., in a way that shortchanges the depth of the questions they are attempting to answer.
At its best, a study of the humanities gives us the ability to question, to find the meaningful problems in life and plumb them ever further, and it does so in such a way that explodes the possibility of simple hierarchical casts (or, perhaps, castes). Kierkegaard reminds us in Fear and Trembling that Descartes spent his whole life cultivating doubt, and that he was but following the lead of the original Greek Skeptics. In our day, as in Kierkegaard’s, we begin with doubt as if it were an easily obtainable attribute (as an aside: we do the same with faith). We then move on to solutions adroitly, masterfully, with flourishes and the excitement of the Stevenote’s “one more thing,” but without understanding even the form of the question we rushed to answer. We left off “fear and trembling” before the existential crisis, pay only lip-service to questions of the inner life, and hustle down the melioristic/catastrophic assembly line of progress, technology, and world-shattering op-eds. This is “blind faith,” not of the kind that assumes the answers are granted and complete (and orderly), but of the more insidious kind that assumes the questions are simple and fully formed (and fully subject to order).
Both Brooks and Krystal glossed over their important and substantial questions in their quest to give quick solutions in the form of impossibly Platonic ideas. The push for “meaning” in American life is the product of a deep shift in cultural values and realities, and deserves more attention than a knee-jerk call for an imaginary golden structure from bygone years. Similarly, the curation of works for use in molding minds in academia is as important as ever, especially as the world oeuvre continually increases in size and accessibility, but the push for structure undermines questions of a more essential nature, such as those that regard the nature of curation itself and definitions of worth in various settings. As I look over the year past, I find that I have been guilty of the same shallow behavior I accuse Brooks and Krystal of perpetrating (and, indeed, I am not going to be the one to correct their specific mistakes). Of course we cannot spend our lives in deeply questioning every detail—eventually the pizza must be ordered; the lesson of the grad student with the taco shop menu looms large—but surely we can give more attention to the questions whose very existences form the substance of our inner and outer lives.
Perhaps the most far-reaching lesson I learned in the first year of my undergraduate education came from Dr. Roger Keller, a professor of world religion I had the privilege of working for.* When asked by a colleague why a faithful Mormon should study philosophy when we claim to have the answers needed for salvation, he replied (and I paraphrase), “But we don’t have all the questions. Answers to questions we never asked, to problems we never considered, mean very little.”
The Humanities Center has the express purpose of cultivating collaboration between students and teachers, between this institution and others, in the U.S. and abroad, so we might get deeper into the questions that make life worth the effort. It explicitly encourages the use of Bakhtin’s heteroglossia, “different tongues/languages,” and polyglossia, “many tongues/languages,” as ways of progressing ever more profoundly into inquiry. Along the way we will indeed find answers, and I am certain these answers will enrich the academic circles and world communities the Center serves, but the far more useful service the Center provides, and that the humanities provide in general, is a commitment to careful, soulful, meaningful exploration of questions that matter. In the interest of service to the communities I serve and my own happiness, I am willing to put down my pained expression, feigned hipness, and ironic repulsion in a sincere commitment to ask better, deeper, more compassionate, and more difficult questions this year and henceforth.
* Dr. Keller, if you read this, I make no apologies for ending that sentence with a preposition. It was done on purpose and with love.