The Relevance of the Humanities in a Digital World

The following post was written by Tamara Pace Thomson, a student Fellow at the Center.

Recently, in the Stanford Magazine for alumni, I read an interview with Professor Alexander Nemerov, who was a professor of art history at Stanford from 1992–2001 before teaching at Yale for eleven years. He returned to Stanford in 2013 and was just made the new chair of the Department of Art and Art History at Stanford. Two of the comments he made in his interview struck me as especially pertinent to my own experience as an undergraduate at BYU. First, Nemerov said that rather than seeing studies in the humanities as an opportunity to get to know great works of art, literature, and music, he sees them as an opportunity for self-discovery and self-invention. He said, “I see myself as trying to find out, for myself as much as for my students, what matters in life and to treat that as an ongoing concern.” Initially, the notion that studying art or literature can be a means to self-discovery or self-invention sounds like an extension of our self-absorbed, self-obsessed culture that is constantly asking of every endeavor or pursuit: what’s in it for me? However, Nemerov’s follow-up comment about finding out what matters in life clarifies the meaning of self-discovery and self-invention. What I think Nemerov is onto, and one thing I have learned at BYU, is that the study of poetry, art, music, and literature leads to self-discovery because it uncovers what matters in life—it reveals to the individual that there is more than just the mundane, mechanical, and shallow plodding of modern day living, and it reveals both the greatness and the limitation of being human. When Moby-Dick transfixes a solitary reader by the vastness of the thing that is whaling, by the logic of Ahab’s delirium, by the desolation and tranquility of Melville’s literary sea, or by the heartbreak of Pip’s mental wreckage, it can show a reader who he or she is, it can grant the reader access to the realization that what matters to them is deeper and more profound than what they previously could have imagined. In this way, coming to know a work of literature, art, or music provides self-discovery and can lead to self-invention as one decides to become a person of understanding and wisdom.

The second statement of Nemerov’s that caught my attention was his answer to the question of what he thinks about the increasing role technology is playing within the arts curriculum. He said, “I am not a big fan of the breathless wish to be more tech-oriented. I feel that the main thing I have to offer my students is to train them and me in powers of attention and focus, [with] the minimum of gizmos and pleas for contemporary relevance and answering to the demands of a speeded-up society. I just reject and ignore all that.” Besides being a bold statement from a professor at a university enmeshed in Silicon Valley, I think Nemerov’s implication that the humanities can train us in the powers of attention and focus is exactly what keeps the humanities relevant. With the ever increasing use of smartphones, computers, and other distracting gadgets, our ability to maintain attention on the important things during a day (such as working, driving, studying or paying attention to children) is becoming more and more difficult, and studying and engaging with the humanities is one way to combat our ever-shortening attention spans.

Our human attention span was at the center of a study conducted by Microsoft in May of this year. Their study concluded that the average human attention span has dropped significantly in recent years because of the use of smartphones. Humans now have an attention span that is shorter than that of goldfish. In 2000 humans could focus for an average of twelve seconds, but as of 2013 the average attention span was down to eight seconds—goldfish can focus for an entire nine seconds. In response to this news, some cultural critics, including Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times, have written about the way listening to classical music requires (and enhances) increased attention—attention that is hard to come by in our frenetic, fast-paced world. And this is where the fight to keep the humanities relevant that Professor Nemerov mentioned becomes inverted. Rather than needing to prove through the use of technology how relevant the arts and literature are, it is in the movement away from technology that makes the humanities relevant. Learning to focus on, and engage with, a sixty- to seventy-minute Beethoven symphony, or even just a ten-minute Vivaldi bassoon concerto, is a skill that translates into nearly every area of life, and it is a skill that can provide a much needed reprieve from the fragmented information overload of contemporary society. The gift of focus and attention gained through careful reading, watching, and listening of the texts and compositions of artists and thinkers is as apposite and needful as it has ever been.

As a student in the College of Humanities, I have had the opportunity to learn from teachers and professors who are genuinely interested in exploring works of literature, music, and art in order to find out what matters in life. Studying the humanities can give access to the most profound questions and the most profound answers in life, and my professors in both my English and humanities classes have been eager to cultivate a space of curiosity and inquiry. Whether it is spending an hour dissecting a poem by Rilke, or unraveling an opera by Strauss, or studying a painting by Corot, my professors have shared with me the thrill that comes from heightened focus and the self-discovery that comes from intellectual and aesthetic attention. And I can’t think of anything that is more relevant than that.

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