Thursday, September 28, 2017

States of Insecurity

The president of the Modern Language Association writes in their fall newsletter about this year's presidential theme for the organization, "States of Insecurity." She ponders "what strategies...the humanities offer for navigating our current crises." After listing some recent threats to education, at all levels, she notes that the academic community known for the postmodern position that "reality is complex and anything but natural and transparent" suddenly finds itself on the opposite side of the argument. Now we have to defend the existence of objective reality by "maintaining the primacy of facts." She naturally mentions the importance of defending "freedom of expression." She also reminds us that the present state of "insecurity" belongs to "a category of similar events—neither the first nor the last in a long series."

We liberal arts majors (proverbial career path—"want fries with that?") often face the challenge of explaining what "use" our subject areas serve. Many potential employers, we might point out, welcome humanities majors because of the flexibility and critical habits of thought they've acquired in their studies. But that's a secondary issue. The liberal arts, of course, were originally so named because they're the studies appropriate to a "free" person, the fields of inquiry that precisely do NOT exist mainly to enable the student to earn a living. I've been rereading the Rabbi Small mysteries by Harry Kemelman, in which the rabbi mentions more than once that the Talmud declares learning should not be used as "a spade to dig with"—a means of making a living—but pursued for its own sake.

The Phi Beta Kappa society also frequently speaks out for the value of liberal arts and humanities studies as a good thing in their own right. Sadly, though, how many young people these days can afford to spend four years in college solely for the joy of learning? Nevertheless, it could be argued that this principle becomes especially vital in "states of insecurity," particularly when some public figures seem to take pride in ignorance.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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