Monday, November 3, 2014

An Education in Humanity(ies)

Aristotle and Alexander

I just happened to listen to a talk by Professor Leslie Epstein on Youtube. He was talking about the ignorance of the current college students. About their lack of knowledge and of interest in their own culture, history, and art in general, especially the older more “sublime” culture.

I agree with all that Epstein said, however, I also think that some changes are inevitable, and some changes are even necessary evils, necessary to survive in the modern world. Democratization of every cultural factor could lead to a leveling of old hierarchies even in the world of "culture". That is one cause of the end of the interest in the old Humanities. I believe all that knowledge and sensibilities of the past have been absorbed into the very DNA of the current generation, in a collective sense. And some other forms of those have evolved out of those, for better or for worse. Naturally, mutation occurred! Obviously they would tell the older generation that we are ignorant of a thing or two. It is a new world, a young world, and while people like me would keep looking back at the greener times, these citizens will keep looking to the future, sadly, sometimes a bleak one. When you really think about it, that older sublime culture also caused certain evils that are still beyond our understanding. There were wars and destruction well before the ones in video games.( ref. think of  Aristotle and Alexander.) The one difference again may be that what was exclusive to a handful now has been again, democratized, including the retelling of histories.

In spite of all that, another factor that deters the current generation from taking a look at the older forms of culture could be more mundane - finding a job. I see teenagers who are going to college now wondering how to opt out of applying to certain universities that has a mandatory core curriculum in Philosophy, Art, History and Literature. They see those subjects as useless and as a total waste of time. As long as the so called feminine qualities of empathy, forgiveness and selflessness are seen as weaknesses, and "giving in", and when success is measured by how much you earn, and how many you destroy, then the younger generation of any time in history, is going to avoid those, and any things that are related to it, like the plague.

Come to think of it, it is true in my case. All my literary studies haven't equipped me to survive in the real world, the one outside my home. That's what my son has seen. His father who has a professional degree makes a tangible difference in his and others' lives, while his mom with a literature degree (who always tries to think from the other's point of view, who tries to learn lessons from all experiences, who analyzes the tensions and sensibilities of the marginal in every movie and/or news item, while admiring the beauty in the method), remains this ridiculous eternal student. Relegated to the background, trying to win the approval of everyone, while forever tormented by discontent.

 And I can see why these kids have turned to skills and training.  Knowledge for knowledge's sake is not for them -- it is a means to an end -- to make a living.  I cannot dismiss this situation as a simple dichotomy between passion and reason, or art and science. To them people like me are dissociated from real life, life that is measured by fame and success, to which I tend to agree at times. Because where I come from, back then, we, especially girls who studied literature, who read books, were not trained for a job, let alone a career.. We just floated in some rarefied atmosphere, totally out of touch with reality. (Reading this you would think I lived in Victorian England, or in Bronte country. You are not far off the mark -- only thing is, like in the case of love, or just plain friendship with the opposite sex, Victorian women were better off- they had the odd curate lurking about. With us, the nuns monopolized the odd priests.)

The only facts for me were abstract ideas of freedom, truth, love, duty, and loyalty. Abstract being the operative word, especially in the matter of love. It was a hypnotic period where we felt as if we were doing something worthwhile, while all the time we were just being prepared to be docile little housewives. We learned to read books, and some of us learned how to write books, but we were all ineffectual. What we learned, more importantly, is to appreciate knowledge, again, in a theoretical sense. Still, the practical side escaped people like me. Most of us were unaware of the uses of all that knowledge to ourselves, how we could work it to our own advantage. It was always for others, especially those ideas of duty and loyalty to family. Add to that a pair of parents who got their high from giving the shirts off their backs to all in need, and found it very difficult and downright shameful to accept or ask for anything from others, all you end up is as a "good girl". All this, needless to say, was as opposed to the other extreme that is prevalent now. Now if we could have struck a golden balance,that would have been ideal. Instead we got stuck in that ivory tower. Humanities, old and new, are important to us, and an education in the Humanities should enhance the whole life and knowledge experience of the individual.

But what Epstein so rightly pointed out about the loss of that power of empathy, that terrible exaltation of the self, that is truly frightening. Again, this is not new -- ref. Aristotle and Alexander. I wonder how empathetic Alexander was. I wonder how empathetic those great musicians and artists were to the women around them. Or Winston Churchill. I am sure he had a pretty good education in the Humanities. I doubt if that helped his empathetic abilities! Nevertheless, it was limited to a few -- the choice, the education, the power -- now it may not be. Not that everyone would be powerful, but more are, than in the olden days. The mutation of the collective DNA. A natural progression in civilization, probably an apparent regression in “humanity”, which may still evolve into something even better than the old.  

And when we want to build a truly better culture, what better way than any is there but to base it on all that has gone before? Alter it, dismantle it, deconstruct, reconstruct – you have to know the old too at some level - the present experience or product could be  richer for that. For instance, an education in history would make a modern teenager stop and think before they declare that they do not like feminists, or that many issues are just conspiracy theories that grown ups hold on to for no reason. They would realize that the freedoms that they take for granted were won by the struggles of many who went before them. (anxiety of influence on another level in action?), that there is more to be done to cause real progress.Any education should ideally nurture our humanity, and if it fails in that, we are in trouble. Who knows these modern day mavericks may then reinvent the wheel in their own way.

See the video of the TEDtalk here: