Thursday, May 28, 2009

In Which the Author Uses "The Arts" Loosely and Inconsistently

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Several months ago, two members of the Georgia State Legislature created a minor stir when they took to the floor to announce a “ ‘grassroots’ effort to oust professors with expertise in subjects like male prostitution, oral sex, and ‘queer theory.’ ” Their “grassroots” effort of course went nowhere, and, after several Georgia State Professors who had such expertise explained to the House Higher Education Committee that their research included AIDS epidemics and teenage attitudes towards oral sex, the House members claimed the media had blown the whole thing out of proportion. (You can find the article here.)

What interests me is not the media coverage, which was indeed abysmal—the initial article was misleadingly entitled “Steamy Sex Courses Fire GOP’s Ire,” and the reporter had not so much as made an effort to understand what “queer theory” might be—but rather the attitudes about higher education expressed by these House members (restated in the follow-up article).

“Our job is to educate our people in sciences, business, and math,” said Representative Calvin Hill in a time of budget cuts (and here I am quoting the article’s indirect quotation of Hill), “universities should not offer classes that do not help students get jobs.”

The Humanities has always had a difficult time defending its role in higher education, but the current (and ongoing) budget crises of state governments have made matters worse. Alumni donate heavily to athletics, scientific and engineering research, and business schools, but neglect History, Political Science, Philosophy, and English. Taxpayers are generally not interested in Shakespeare. The state of Wisconsin, for example, has provided enough funding for my department to hire fewer than half the number of faculty members we have lost over the past three years.

Those who are critical of the Humanities have a point. Much of what I do as an academic is utterly useless. I spend months carefully crafting arguments about 400-year-old texts in the hopes that the one person who will read it—my professor—will like it. (Good, my professor will say, but not great. And then he or she will point out that someone else has already said more or less what I have said, except better.) The stakes will change as I move up in the ivory tower, but the size of my audience probably will not.

Why should the state pay for this type of research? Why should universities offer courses taught by these types of people—who clearly will not help anyone find a job?

Down with that upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide, supposes he is as well able to bumbast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrie!

Yet a number of my fellow Around-the-Couch wordsmiths have attested to the value of their liberal arts educations. (Now may not be the best time to point out that a number of my fellow Around-the-Couch wordsmiths are—or at least were—unemployed.) In order to understand why the liberal arts may be worth saving, it might be helpful to consider the way in which Renaissance humanists—whose ideas were largely responsible for our notion of a “liberal arts” education—thought about the arts.

Unlike Kant, who would later argue that a work of art exists for our detached aesthetic contemplation and moral judgment (it’s much more complicated than that, I know), thinkers like Pico della Mirandola and Desiderius Erasmus thought of art in much more active terms: not only did art have a didactic (generally moral) and amusing purpose, but it actually acted upon its audience. Consider these lines about satire from Joseph Hall’s Virgidemiarum (1598):

The Satyre should be like the Porcupine,
That shoots sharpe quils out in each angry line,
And wounds the blushing cheeke, and fiery eye,
Of him that heares, and readeth guiltily. (5.3.1-4)

What begins as metaphorical effect—the sting of a porcupine—becomes literal affect: reading a satire will make the reader feel ashamed, which is manifested in a physical response (the blush). Or consider Thomas Heywood’s remarks about the power of theater in his Apology for Actors (1612): “so bewitching a thing is lively and well-spirited action, that it hath power to new-mold the harts of the spectators, and fashion them to the shape of any noble and notable attempt.”

Critics of the arts during the Renaissance were the exact opposite of those represented by Representative Hill. Rather than finding the arts ineffective (for helping students get jobs), the arts threatened to be too effective—depictions of vice could lead the audience to emulate vice. In a Sermon at Paul’s Cross in 1577, for example, Thomas White suggested that “the cause of plagues is sinne, if you looke to it well: and the cause of sinne are playes: therefore the cause of plagues are playes.”

We all know the clich├ęs that retain this understanding of the arts—“the pen is mightier than the sword,” for example—but when we think about art, most of us probably still side with Kant: we engage the work of art, not the other way around. But humanities classes demonstrate that the work of art—or the historical narrative, or the philosophical system, or the political argument, or anything that exists in the realm of ideas rather than fact—has the power to engage us: we are forced to think, to recognize that we think, to be critical of the way we think, and to understand that our way of thinking is not the only available way of thinking. These classes taught by experts in male prostitution, oral sex, “queer theory,” or that Upstart Crow Shake-scene can change the way we think—or even make us think for ourselves.

That may not help students find jobs, but somehow it still seems worth defending.

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