Can Humanism Be Saved?

Last Saturday my son Adam graduated from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.  The class of 2012 was Bowdoin’s 212th graduation ceremony.  My oldest son David graduated in 2005.  I graduated in 1973. (Sam, my middle son, bucked the tradition and happily graduated from New York University in 2008.)

Adam majored in neuroscience and plans on becoming a physician after working in a lab for a year or so.  He plays Schubert on the piano; reads Haruki Murakami; collects mechanical pencils; was captain of the college ultimate frisbee team.  David is completing a Ph.D in physics education at Columbia and teaches 8th grade science and math.  Sam will enter his third year of law school in the fall, clerking this summer for the Massachusetts Attorney General in Boston, making watches in his spare time and coaching figure skating to earn his keep.

I’m thinking about my boys while reading Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason, a book David recommended as a “must read.”  The book chronicles the dismaying history of how the United States, unique in the Western World, has ended up with a population majority that doesn’t read, is largely anti-intellectual and anti-science, prone to fundamentalist religion, clueless to the country’s history, against national education standards, reveres the rich more than the educated.  Since the beginnings of the country, the South is much to blame for this, but attitudes and beliefs developed there have drifted across the country.

A liberal, humanist eduction is one of the few bulwarks against this tide.  But as a recent article in The New Yorker pointed out, even at some of the nation’s most elite universities–Stanford for example–the trend is away from the humanities in favor of the quicker route to fame and riches offered by electrical engineering and computer science.  In Asia and developing countries, this trend is exponentially greater.  Very very few aspiring students in China or India want to waste precious time taking classes in history, philosophy, classics or literature.

Maybe this is vital to the future; certainly it’s necessary in our contemporary connected society.  But where does it leave an open-eyed humanist, still pursuing Enlightenment goals?  Many, such as my sons, have integrated their interests into a mix of personal and professional objectives combining specialization with a foundation in the humanities.  They know, however, that they’re in a privileged minority even as competition within their peer groups remains intense.  Their lives have been enriched, their minds opened, but will they get the job?

Advertising has played a significant role in dumbing down American mass culture. The linkages between advertisers’s need to reach the largest audiences, the ads created to reach them and shows like American Idol are obvious and insidious.  More Americans are likely to vote for their favored singer than for an American president.  Who receives more media coverage in America: the Kardashian sisters or the eight Supreme Court Justices?  Admittedly, Ruth Bader Ginsberg is unlikely to sell many copies of People magazine, though therein lies the problem.  (Thurgood Marshall may have in his day.)

I don’t see a way out of the pact with the devil between advertising and advertisers.   The advertising industry tends to breed cynical fellow travelers.  Pseudoscience markets itself as legitimate research; the lowest common denominators of consumer opinion rank higher than the opinions of experts; media planners direct dollars to the trashiest shows in a vicious circle to reach the largest audiences.  The list goes on and on. I’m chagrinned to have been involved. I’ve scripted a higher-ground narrative on the premise that my principles have never been compromised by working on less than savory businesses.  Who could object to persuading consumers to purchase an HP laptop or take a holiday in Bermuda?  But this is just self-rationalization to assuage feelings of guilt.

I don’t mean to promote the prejudices of a highbrow elite against lowbrow taste. (Progressive middlebrow values have been on the wane for decades.)  I do mean to bemoan a culture lacking serious and national secondary school standards; a culture that favors superstition and hope over evidence based proofs; a culture that would rather the US president be popular at a BBQ than smart in the White House; a culture that defines celebrity on the basis of being famous for the sake of being famous.

I’m writing this in the kitchen of a grand and beautiful 19th century Columbia County house overlooking a wide expanse of the Hudson River.  My host and her guests represent the  loftiest levels of New York culture, taste and erudition.  My friends for forty years. No one comes from the Christian Right; everyone believes in evolution (why is this even debated in the 21st century?)  The galleries of the Metropolitan Museum are as familiar as the sidewalks of the Upper East Side. The environment and historic preservation are serious concerns. High level education is assumed; Kansas is very far away.  This is an outpost of the liberal, humanist tradition in American culture.

I suspect these old-school, rarified outposts will last indefinitely, though undoubtedly growing smaller and fewer.  In many ways the cultural attitudes here are at odds with the Democratic principles evidenced in the voting booths.  (Vintage posters of “FDR for President” hang in the back stair hallway.)  At dinner last night we discussed the future of art books.  The conversation began with the assertion that art books were a poor substitute for viewing the actual works, and that no one should think they have seen the Mona Lisa after looking at a reproduction in a book.  The question of art book survival was actually aimed at the transition from the printed page to electronic media.  Around the table most regarded this future with a combination of distain and horror.  The only one who didn’t was the director of a Gilded Age museum, whom I least suspected to be open and supportive of wider exposure to the best examples of art, music and literature. –surely a sign of hope.   I wish we had had a few twenty-five year olds at the table!

I’m going to put my faith in my sons and try very hard to believe their future will be different.  It’s difficult to see, and anyway too late for me and the boomer generation. (Susan Jacoby has more recently published an equally distressing book on the fallacies of “youthful aging,” the latest euphemism for growing old.)

My greatest joy is that my sons inhabit both of these worlds: at home in Silicon Valley and MOMA; a science lab and the Muse d’Orsay; a criminal court and immersion in the old Bohemian court of Rudolf II.   It’s the old nature versus nurture argument.  We need both, and a liberal education is the foundation of the second.  Yet, I see no way for the country as a whole to remake itself in a more humane, open–yes, civilized (in the original meaning of the word)–manner.  There is no civil discourse in American politics, no higher aim to improve the way the country “thinks.”  The promulgation of high culture is almost solely in the hands of parents, since art and music and the work of DWM in pubic schools have largely been abandoned as unnecessary frills.  One huge problem most liberal humanists face is that we tend to speak only to each other, and the same is true for conservative fundamentalists.  Few Southern Baptists are likely to be reading the liberal press, just as I am unlikely to tune into Rush Limbaugh.  Our worlds are self-defined and self-contained. There’s no conversation at all.

Sitting here on the patrician side of the Hudson, the Catskills in the distance, among my friends, I feel like a man living on one of the last, remote outposts of the British Empire, clinging to a memory long gone from the modern realities of the world and no boat to return to that imagined home. Then I reprimand myself.  It’s the responsibility of all who believe in liberal humanist values to transmit them to as many others as we can. It’s what I’ve done for my sons. We need to do more, to move beyond our comfort zones, to challenge the status quo of indifference or worse.  We need to listen, too.

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