What Frankenstein Can Teach Us About the Real Crisis in the Humanities

12/06/2013 01:44 pm ET | Updated Feb 04, 2014

Recently, the philosopher Gary Gutting published a wise opinion piece, "The Real Humanities Crisis," in The New York Times. Granted, the latest version of the "there's a crisis in the Humanities!" meme had already been debunked several times (especially here and here). But the idea itself - that the Humanities are in a perpetual and irreversible decline - keeps shambling on, no matter how many times it's shot down (much like the zombies I analyzed in a previous blog). So Gutting takes a different tack: what if the problem, he asks, is not with the Humanities but with the rest of our profit-driven society? As Gutting observes,

"Our economic system works well for those who find meaning in economic competition and the material rewards it brings. To a lesser but still significant extent, our system provides meaningful work in service professions (like health and social work) for those fulfilled by helping people in great need. But for those with humanistic and artistic life interests, our economic system has almost nothing to offer."

Gutting then outlines some ideas for beginning to change this situation: pay teachers more, subsidize professional sports a little less, create more structural support for cultural institutions like theaters and orchestras, and so forth.

I'm all for these initiatives - after all, I'm an English professor, one of the lucky few who was able to turn my love of literature and theory into a decent salary along the way. But since I don't work on policy, I'd like to draw attention to a set of questions raised implicitly by Gutting's remarks: what does it say about us as a society that - with a few exceptions for celebrities and superstars - we reward money-and profit-oriented professions so much more readily and lavishly than art- and culture-making ones? And what it might mean for our future?

I don't have final answers to these questions, but I do have an archive of literary examples with which to help think about them. (I'm an English professor, remember?) Consider the contrasting educational experiences outlined in Mary Shelley's ever-relevant 1819 novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Early in the text, Victor Frankenstein explains that his father taught him not to believe in any superstitions; this is an education that ironically works against him when he later fails feel the proper horror at corpses and graveyards that might have kept him from his infamous experiments. But the rest of Victor's childhood education remains quite murky, and his first significant reading experience seems to take place only when he discovers a book by the medieval alchemist and magician, Cornelius Agrippa. When Victor asks his father about it, Frankenstein Sr. dismisses it as "sad trash" but neglects to explain why it's trashy. In response, as classic teenage rebellion, Victor immediately reads everything he can find by Agrippa and several other ancient and medieval pseudo-philosophers. When Victor goes to university to begin his studies, then, he is already predisposed not only to study science rather than the arts, but to study what today we might call junk science. Worse, he seems to have little or no moral compass with which to guide those studies; although he does not care about getting rich, he is clear that he wants "glory" above all.

Victor's motivations for subsequently creating his Creature are complex, of course, and continue to be the subject of debate. (He's a megalomaniac! He wants to bring his dead mother back to life! He has poor social skills and wants a friend!) What can't be doubted, however, is that the haste with which Victor creates it is a result both of his ambition and his lack of ethical education. His fateful decision to use enormous body parts, for example, is made so that he can work more quickly, with no thought of how the Creature's enormous stature will make it impossible to fit in among normal-sized humans.

Victor's selective and faulty education starkly contrasts with the Creature's, even though the latter grows up in far harsher circumstances. Fleeing his horrified creator and eventually finding temporary sanctuary in a shack attached to a cottage, the Creature watches and listens to the elderly man and his family next door. Through this means it eventually learns language, and subsequently eavesdrops on a series of basic lessons conveniently being given to a foreigner. Later still, the Creature finds a dropped satchel of books and is able to continue his tutelage himself. In this way, it gets a solid education via several literary and historical texts of considerable importance, including Milton's Paradise Lost and Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther. Ironically, the Creature's patched-together intellectual upbringing is in many ways fuller and richer than that of his more privileged creator.

At the risk of stating the obvious, reading these texts does not make the Creature happier or more successful; as I've written before, it's a mistake - albeit a well-meaning one - to claim that reading good books automatically makes you a good person. If anything, Goethe and Milton add to the Creature's distress insofar as they drive home how far it has been cast out of human society, and furnish it with a narrative of good and evil which is nevertheless not as straightforward as it seems (should the Creature identify with Adam or Satan?). What they inarguably accomplish, however, is to deepen the Creature's sense of self by teaching him empathy and raising his awareness, however painful, of the world and his place in it (or lack thereof). They teach him, in other words, to think critically about his situation. We may never approve of how the Creature subsequently acts - if Shelley's text were unambiguous on this point, I wouldn't have the pleasure of endless classroom discussions on the topic! - but at least it goes forward with a level of awareness of self and society that Victor, for all his scientific genius, never attains. The tragedy of both their wasted lives suggests a chilling outcome of the loss of the Humanities, not just at the level of individual self-knowledge, but also at the level of sustainable social progress as well.