Consider and reconsider the humanities: thoughts from Marilynne Robinson and Laura Skandera Trombley


My morning readings were connected on a fundamental level: the necessity of the humanities.

First, Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson, in her book Absence of Mind:

The Freudian neurasthenic is not the Darwinian primate, who is not the Marxist proletarian, who is not the behaviorists’ organism available to being molded by a regime of positive and negative sensory experience. To acknowledge an element of truth in each of these models is to reject the claims of sufficiency made by all of them. What they do have in common, beside the claim to sufficiency, is an exclusion of the testimonies of culture and history.

Second, Laura Skandera Trombley, president of Pitzer College, in a speech adapted and published yesterday on The Huffington Post, drawing on a recent passenger jet flight:

It struck me that flying in a beige and white steel tube with nothing to occupy my time might be a reasonable analogy for what existence might be like devoid of the humanities. You’d live, but the experience would be decidedly lacking.

Do I need to explain how deadening and joyless it is to ride in that cylindrical tube? Do we really need to explain why poetry, art, philosophy and theater matter? Really, at what point did we have to start defending the value of knowing ourselves? Of human complexity? Of analysis? Of communication? Of meaning?

The sciences and the humanities have always been intertwined and one cannot prosper without the other. My favorite Greek philosopher, Aristotle, is properly recognized as the originator of the scientific study of life or, as we know it, biology; but he was also our first philosopher of art and theater. My guess is that Aristotle would be troubled by the way we have siloed our ways of knowing.

Takeaways:

  1. Culture and history belong at the center of any account of being human.
  2. Genuine knowing must be an act of integrating not silo-ing.
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