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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Comments (3)
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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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