The Tolstoy Bailout, Or Why The Humanities Matter

Writing in The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier offers a response to the Feb 25 piece in the NYTimes: In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth. His argument is worth a read, and here is one lengthy money quote:

The complaint against the humanities is that they are impractical. This is true. They will not change the world. They will change only the experience, and the understanding, and the evaluation, of the world. .... It is worth remembering, then, that the crisis in which we find ourselves was the work of practical men. The securitization of mortgages was not conceived by a head in the clouds. No poet cost anybody their house. No historian cost anybody their job. Not even the most pampered of professors ever squandered $87,000 of someone else's money on a little rug. The creativity of bankers is a luxury that we can no longer afford. But now I read about "defending the virtues of the liberal arts in a money-driven world," as the Times says. I would have thought that in these times the perspective of money would be ashamed to show itself. What authority, really, should the standpoint of finance any longer have for American society? Who gives a damn what Kenneth D. Lewis thinks about anything? ... The study of religion, defending itself to capitalists? ...

In tough times, of all times, the worth of the humanities needs no justifying. The reason is that it will take many kinds of sustenance to help people through these troubles. Many people will now have to fall back more on inner resources than on outer ones. They are in need of loans, but they are also in need of meanings.... We are in need of fiscal policy and spiritual policy. And spiritually speaking, literature is a bailout, and so is art, and philosophy, and history, and the rest.  ... Regression analysis will not get us through the long night. We need to know more about the human heart than the study of consumer behavior can teach. These are the hours when the old Penguin paperbacks must stand us in good stead. It was for now that we read them then.

Very well said, and the logic outlined here could be one reason why the continuing education program that I help lead -- which is heavy on meat & potato humanities courses -- is so far faring quite well.
via the TNR Twitter Feed (ours here)


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  • AJ says:

    I read this yesterday and today I’m a bit surprised that there were no posted comments. So here’s one. As a social worker (still working) who has equal admiration for humanities and sciences, I would call this article one of the best of the recession. Perhaps the arts were only being financed in the past as a show of disingenuous taste. But it’s intrinsic value does not diminish with time or based on whether I have enough money or not. Now, the issue at hand is whether culture is “fund worthy” in these times. Well, education is at it’s root a cultural endeavor; is it worthy of funding? Public pools and beaches should be open in the summer, even if some casinos have to close and the auto industry contracts to a few greatly competitive companies. I find that we simply stumble over our own prejudices when we pick and choose what is valuable when money is tight. That’s why we almost started charging for trash pick up in my town and are still bent on closing nearly a dozen community libraries and more pools. You want to drive away decent people who can afford to leave and further frustrate those who are trapped by closing public spaces. This is how the new rules are applied if we do not respect our roots. Without roots we will be blown away. Okay, now it’s your turn to comment..

  • Dan Colman says:

    I also frankly expected this article to elicit a few more responses. It takes a pretty “in your face” position (in a good way), and I actually found it a quite compelling defense of the humanities. As you said AJ, we could all use some anchoring and perspective, especially now. Tolstoy does that.

  • Gary D. Collins says:

    Thought that this would be interesting and well worth the read.

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