The highest accomplishment in literature

I am reading The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy. Those books pulse with the tremor of life. I don’t think literature can achieve anything greater than that.

I am not an optimist (nor am I a pessimist)

I would like to share a quote from a book I am re-reading with a student and which I think deserves careful study and discussion: Revolt of the Masses by José Ortega y Gasset .

I offer this quote without comment (for the present):

“Advanced civilisation is one and the same thing as arduous problems. Hence, the greater the progress, the greater danger it is in. Life gets gradually better, but evidently also gradually more complicated. Of course, as problems become more complex, the means of solving them also become more perfect. But each new generation must master these perfected means. Amongst them- to come to the concrete- there is one most plainly attached to the advance of a civilisation, namely, that it have a great deal of the past at its back, a great deal of experience; in a word: history. Historical knowledge is a technique of the first order to preserve and continue a civilisation already advanced. Not that it affords positive solutions to the new aspect of vital conditions- life is always different from what it was- but that it prevents us committing the ingenuous mistakes of other times. But if, in addition to being old and, therefore, beginning to find life difficult, you have lost the memory of the past, and do not profit by experience, then everything turns to disadvantage.” (Take from chapter x, “Primitivism and history”)

Why the humanities?

The emphasis in educational circles these days is science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It is understandable why: This is where the profitable jobs are and this is seemingly what the marketplace wants, though I don’t like reifying the marketplace by talking about it as if it is a being.

I support the emphasis on shoring up the STEM skills of students and I think it is sensible to look ahead and try and anticipate what young adults will need to find employment. What I hasten to add, however, is that I do not like seeing the humanities ignored. For years, budget cuts have harmed arts programs and in this age of devices and Chromebooks and students doing everything online, I am growing increasingly concerned that works devoted to humanizing human beings are being ignored.

I know that this is a broad statement and I base it primarily on what I am witnessing. What I want to say is something that a good friend of mine has already said which is that the humanities ask questions that are far more difficult to answer than those raised by science and technology, namely:

“How do we learn to treat one another better?”

We are not going to find answers to this question and the galaxy of further questions which it raises if we neglect the humanities and if we believe that technology and technological “fixes” can supersede the human element in human problems. . . which are the planet’s problems, too. In other words, “How do we learn to treat one another and other species and the planet better?” Technological innovations cannot answer that question, they can only be applied to the problem. But right now, is there even a general agreement on the problems we are facing? There are powerful forces at work leading people to deny or obstruct efforts to address vital questions. Relying on technology to make up our minds for us or to somehow spirit away our problems is not a solution.

While I do not believe that reading Leo Tolstoy or bel hooks or Sophocles guarantees a student a job the way programming skills might, I do believe that if we send out a generation of students versed in the necessity of addressing the question of “How do we learn to treat one another better?” then maybe we will have engineers and inventors who have a deeper appreciation and broader context for the use to which their solutions can and will and should be applied.