THE BLOG

Why Study the Arts and the Humanities?

10/07/2013 02:57 pm ET | Updated Dec 07, 2013

Following the recent report of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on the crisis in the Humanities entitled "The Heart of the Matter," I have seen quite a few insightful commentaries, most stressing economic utility -- how the humanities help students succeed in whatever endeavor they pursue -- and some stressing how the humanities contribute to making students better citizens in a democracy.

In my definition, the humanities not only include literature of both ancient and modern languages, the performing arts, philosophy, comparative religion, and cultural studies, but also history, anthropology, and linguistics, although the latter three are often on the border between humanities and the social sciences.

What follows are my own reasons to study the humanities, with a particular focus on the arts. My reasons balance utility with more idealistic quality of life issues. Thus I want to stress both the isness and doesness of the humanities, which in fact is a version of the Horatian credo of delighting and instructing.

On the utility or doesness side, I would stress the value of learning to think critically and independently, read powerfully and perceptively, write lucidly and precisely, and speak articulately.

On the quality of life or isness side, I would stress that the arts take us into imagined worlds created by different minds and enable us to understand how others live. We are what we read, the museums we visit and the performances we see and hear. They are as much us -- part of our memories, our isness -- as the culture we inherit and the life experiences we have.

That entry into other worlds and minds does give us a larger context for thinking about how to live and how to confront and understand present personal and historic issues, even while also giving us pleasure for its own sake.

Another way to think about what the arts do is to ask whether experiencing the arts makes us more perceptive and sensitive humans. We can say with some certainty that reading and viewing masterworks in the visual arts or in attending performances of great music, opera, or ballet
widens our horizons about how people behave and what historical and cultural forces shape that behavior. But will, say, reading War and Peace be a catalyst to heroic action or, as Tolstoy urges, putting family first? Probably not. Will it make us slightly more aware of the need to find definition and purpose in life? Perhaps in some nuanced, immeasurable way, the answer is "Yes." Do adolescents learn anything about life, love, and the place of the imagination from classic young adult fiction like Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Salinger's Catcher in the Rye? I did.

Perhaps the best answer to who gets the most out of the arts is that it depends on what the reader, viewer, or listener brings to her or his experience. For there is a symbiotic relationship between art and audience, and each perceiver is a community of one. Or, as Constantine Cavafy puts it:

Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon -- you won't encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you. ("Ithaka")

Even while teaching us, the arts insert a pause between the tick and the tock and in a sense suspend our diurnal lives. In defending the humanities, perhaps we need to assert the value of that pause, whether it be attending a performance of a Balanchine ballet, a Mozart opera, a Beethoven symphony, or a blues concert by Buddy Guy. The joy and wonder evoked by such performances are real if immeasurable values.

By awakening our imagination, art intensifies and complements our own experience. Art represents people, cultures, values, and perspectives on living, but it does much more. While bringing us pleasure, art teaches us. While reading or contemplating a painting our minds go elsewhere. We are taken on a journey into a world where form and meaning are intertwined.

Form matters and gives pleasure. How a work of art is organized -- its technique, its verbal or visual texture, its way of telling -- gives pleasure. So does the inextricable relation between form and content. The form of imaginative art, as well as the form of well-written non-fiction, organizes the mess (if not the chaos) of personal life as well as that of external events. Form not only organizes and controls art but also other bodies of knowledge within the humanities. Form imposes structure that our own lives -- as we move from moment to moment through time -- may lack.

Narrative -- sequential telling -- imposes form as it orders and gives shape. Indeed, in the sense that each of us is continually giving shape to the stories we tell to and about ourselves, there is continuity between what we read and see and our own lives. Put another way, what we read teaches us to find narratives within our own lives and hence helps us make sense of who we are. Our seeing shapes and patterns in stories and other kinds of art helps give interpretive order -- in the form of a narrative that we understand -- to our lives. We live in our narratives, our discourse, about our actions, thought, and feelings.

While there is always a gulf between imagined worlds and real ones, does not the continuity between reading lives and reading texts depend on our understanding reading as a means of sharpening our perceptions and deepen our insights about ourselves? Reading is a process of cognition that depends on actively organizing the phenomena of language both in the moment of perception and in the fuller understanding that develops retrospectively.

To cultivate both the utility of the humanities and their contribution to the quality of life, we need to develop passionate, committed teachers at every level whose knowledge, enthusiasm, and interest in students enable them to help open the doors and windows of students' minds to the importance of the humanities. Too often university professors are so immersed in their own research that some courses offered are narrow in scope, inadequately defined, and unattractive to students.

Much more stress in college and university curricula should be on how to attract students rather than how to satisfy faculty. But that does not mean dummying down curricula or abandoning the canon. Rather it means organizing the curricula so that the best teachers -- those that truly engage students in the odyssey of learning -- are foregrounded. Course syllabi must be more than maps of a teacher's taste and interest. They need to be an astute selection of texts as windows into cultural traditions and values. Teachers should remember that the goal of the humanities is not only to intensify and complement their students' life experiences but also to give them tools to understand and interpret the world in which they live. This will help them be economically and professionally successful. But it will also enhance their lives, enabling them to take pleasure in the arts and satisfaction in being part of an ongoing humanistic tradition of reading, writing, and thinking.

Author of the well-received 2012 book Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times, 1999-2009 (Excelsior Editions of SUNY Press), Daniel R. Schwarz is Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University. He can be reached at drs6@cornell.edu and followed on Facebook.