There are many disheartening things that have come as a result of the economic situation that the United States has faced over the last several years. However, I am not certain that these disheartening circumstances are the result of the economic downturn. I am convinced that that how we currently see humans, their purpose in this world, has been something that has been cooking for some time now. It is just that the rhetoric has turned pervasively more moribund and functional over the last several years. In particular I am concerned about how the rhetoric has turned against what has been seen as an important, perhaps the central, aspect of our idea of what constitutes a solid education for our future citizens; namely, our children.
Perhaps starting with No Child Left Behind, perhaps even before that, we see the key component of an education as making sure that our children are able to pass tests, making sure that we do not “fall behind,” making sure that our children are becoming, in a very real sense, becoming robotic entities who are able to become “productive” members of society. And what have we sacrificed in order to achieve this? We have sacrificed any notion of a real liberal arts education, which has traditionally centered on literature, philosophy, the humanities, and the arts. These endeavors are seen as essentially useless to the economy because these “activities” purportedly do not “produce” workers who are capable of tasks that comprise much of our economy and these tasks are becoming increasingly mundane, task oriented, and perhaps even a bit dehumanizing. Economic planners, captains of industry, and politicians are not the only ones to blame for this. We can also point fingers at our seemingly endless appetite for spurious and easy entertainment and the tools of technology that have made such easy pursuits, well, easy.
The condition of which I speak is the role that each of us plays in the community. Since the economic downturn we hear more and more discussion about getting people back to work, providing people jobs, and making sure that workers can provide for their families and children. This is obviously an admirable aim. Without work, such an important aspect in all of our lives, our lives can easily become dire. However, work without the context of community, history, and the humanities is bland. Hannah Arendt wrote in her masterpiece, The Human Condition, “Action, as distinguished from fabrication, is never possible in isolation; to be isolated is to be deprived of the capacity to act.” Here Arendt is discussing the fact that humans live in communities and acting, per se, is impossible without others. It is the very central fact of the human condition. It is simply a reiteration of Aristotle’s famous dictum that humans are political animals. Being in a community is the one thing that distinguishes humans over other creatures, according to Aristotle. The need to organize in the way that humans do sets them apart from the beasts we see or the gods. (Obviously, we have a more nuanced understanding of how animals organize, communicate, and perhaps even “feel” than Aristotle did, but his basic claim that humans organize in a unique way still holds.)
Let’s go back to Arendt’s idea. Action, in order to have any meaningful purpose requires community. We might ask, what is it that holds communities together? What are the tools that we have to judge certain acts to moral or immoral? What can we possibly use in order to make sure that the actions that we take in a community do not end up destroying the community? I argue that literature, the arts, and the humanities are the basic tools for making and evaluating moral claims. (I must add the obvious caveat that I know that societies where the arts have flourished have managed to kill, maim, and destroy others with a surprised degree of alacrity and ease. However, at the very least, after fact, it is the arts that can provide a central critique of past actions and make us reflect on what has been done. And perhaps we can avoid such horrors in the future and maybe even correct past injustices. In other words, I am not claiming that the humanities will act as a preemptive barrier against the horrors that humans are capable of committing against other humans, but I do claim that at the very least they provide the tools for reflection on past acts, which might play an important role in preventing them in the future.)
In advancing this claim I turn again to Arendt, “Men in plural . . . can experience meaningfulness only because they can talk with and make sense to each other and themselves.” Certainly one of the keys to any community is our ability to converse with one another in the very direct and most immediate sense of the word “talk.” However, in order for us to talk in any meaningful way beyond the day to day concerns, we need to have the ability to think, ponder, and react critically to ideas as they are articulated in writing. We need to have the context to be able to understand the arts, in the broadest sense of the word, at a higher level than merely as entertainment. It is only when we start to take seriously the need to make sure that children have access to an educational system that values such things that this becomes possible. Though this is mere anecdote, I think of the education that my children are undergoing. They attend good schools, ones that many would consider to be excellent. However, I examine the work they are given and the methods used to teach them and I can only think of the paucity of their experience. They are taught to read literature in terms of breaking the books apart as a technical exercise, not as a chance to explore moral ideas, to engage their creative sides; in short, as a chance to understand better the human condition. In a sense, they approach literature in the class room in the same way that a plumber might approach the technical problem of a clogged sink. And I am not even going into the fact that my children rarely read complete works at school, usually just excerpts. Not to boast, but without discussions and reading at home, it is very likely that they would make it out of high school without knowing who Milton, Donne, Locke, Nietzsche, Camus, Wolfe, Morrison, Baldwin, and on and on are. I had a similar experience when working as a college professor. I found that the average student was not capable of reading deeply, with care, or with any degree of nuance. And the student really couldn’t be blamed for such things. He or she has had the experience of reading throughout his or her life as a means to an end—to receive a grade. Eventually these same students go to college for the same reason—to receive a degree so that they can get a job so that they can make money. College is not generally seen as a chance to engage the great minds and to see how we might better see the world.
If we think of some of the calamites that we have experienced over the last decade—two wars, economic disaster, global climate change, just to mention a few—we might ask what could a better understanding of the arts have done for us. It is not clear that the leaders, for example, of the banking industry would have made better decisions if they were well versed in the moral arguments regarding communities in various forms of literature, but I cannot help but think that if they had known more about Balzac or Sinclair or Conrad that they perhaps would have acted differently. Of course, there is no way to prove such a counterfactual. However, it is nice to think that Milton’s portrayal of Lucifer in Paradise Lost might have meant something to them as they made their decisions that ultimately wreaked havoc on millions of people throughout the globe. Perhaps we might have avoided senseless wars that killed thousands of innocents if our policy makers had had a chance to read through Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Johnson’s Tree of Smoke or O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. But in reality we have come to see morality in strictly individualistic terms, not in communal terms. Jorge Luis Borges once wrote, “A book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory. A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships.” It is through the act of reading, or in contemplating a great piece of music, or in meditating on a work of art that we learn what those communal ties are that bind us in the most important ways.
Borges also once wrote that “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” Today I imagine that most of us would say that we have imagined Paradise to be a kind of immediate stream of sensations that are merely pleasurable and that help us to pass the time. (see John Gray’s Straw Dogs.) And why shouldn’t it be? We are being taught that we are parts of an economic machine, we are taught that technology is a balm for all that ails us, and that the hard work of establishing community and pondering what that means is something that is not important. Harold Bloom once remarked that “we read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are.” I am afraid that such reasons for reading are now gone.
Where does this leave us? It leaves us with a community that looks to two candidates who speak in terms of slogans and sound bites, rather than in terms of anything substantive. It leaves us with vacuous political parties that seek power, rather than understanding. It leaves us looking to the outside for salvation rather than knowing how to reflect on what type of world we would like to make that is more just, equitable, and livable. It leaves us in an almost Hegelian world where “world spirit” acts as it does and we are merely cogs in its processes. (I am thinking of the Hegel in Reason in Philosophy. The Hegel that people such as Lenin and Mao would have perhaps enjoyed.) Ironically, it was also Hegel who wrote, “What experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.” I fear that such is still true. And I am not sure that we really want knowledge of the way things are.
Perhaps we will find ourselves, or maybe we already do, in the situation that Radiohead poignantly describes in “No Surprises,” which I quote at length:
A heart that’s full up like a landfill
A job that slowly kills you
Bruises that won’t heal

You look so tired and unhappy
Bring down the government
They don’t, they don’t speak for us
I’ll take a quiet life
A handshake of carbon monoxide

No alarms and no surprises
No alarms and no surprises
No alarms and no surprises
Silent, silent

This is my final fit, my final bellyache with

No alarms and no surprises
No alarms and no surprises
No alarms and no surprises please

Such a pretty house, and such a pretty garden

No alarms and no surprises (let me out of here)
No alarms and no surprises (let me out of here)
No alarms and no surprises please (let me out of here)