Tuesday, March 14, 2006

A case for humanities

Coming as I do from a society where the stress on being a doctor/engineer is massive, it's nice to come across articles from time to time which tell you that your interest, despite in the process of becoming a lost cause, does carry weight still:

Ever since the Renaissance, the humanities have defined what it means to be an educated person. The very word comes from the Latin name of the first modern, secular curriculum, the studia humanitatis, invented in fourteenth-century Italy as a rival to traditional university subjects like theology, medicine, and law.

To study the humanities was to grow more independent and intrepid, both intellectually and morally; it was the royal road to becoming a complete human being. In the words of the critic George Steiner, A.M. ’50, modern education has been defined by the principle “that the humanities humanize.”

But today, every part of Vergerio’s confident creed is coming under increased attack. For one thing, “liberal studies” can appear less useful, to the student and to society as a whole, than concrete scientific and technical knowledge. Better to emerge from college as a budding biologist or financier, our practical-minded culture incessantly tells us, than as a mere reader of books. [My exact dilemma, take note.]

Meanwhile, the humanities themselves have become infinitely more self-critical in recent decades, so that “virtue” and “wisdom,” unproblematic terms for Vergerio, are now contested battlegrounds. Reading canonical texts, many people now believe, is not the road to freedom, but a subtle kind of indoctrination.

[Genuine point: one which the powers that be in those hallowed institutions need to address if humanities have to be rescued from propagandist inculcation.]

The piece then moves to Francesco Petrarch and his intense desire to read:

No wonder Petrarch never had enough to read, as his modern biographer, Ernest Hatch Wilkins, Ph.D. 1910, records. “I am possessed by one insatiable passion, which I cannot restrain—nor would I if I could...I cannot get enough books,” he wrote to a relative in 1346.

And the rarity of books made them precious in a way that we can only dimly grasp today. Petrarch’s paean to his books still defines the humanities’ most elevated ideal of reading as a communion of souls: “Gold, silver, gems, fine raiment, a marble palace, well-cultivated fields, paintings, a splendidly caparisoned horse—such things as these give one nothing more than a mute and superficial pleasure. Books delight us through and through, they converse with us, they give us good advice; they become living and lively companions to us.”

Wilkins notes that Petrarch’s reverence for books affected his entire household, including his illiterate steward, Raymond Monet. “Though Raymond could not read,” Wilkins writes, “he loved the books, and had learned to know them by name. When Petrarch put a book into his hands he would press it to his heart, and sometimes, in a low voice, he would talk to its author.”

And his attempts at saving his soul in the face of the perverse love for knowledge:

Although Petrarch was himself one of the most learned men of his day, he maintains that he would rather be known as a good Christian than as a great classicist: “If You choose to grant me nothing else,” he prays, “let it at least be my portion to be a good man. This I cannot be unless I greatly love and devoutly worship You. I was born for this, and not for learning. If learning alone is granted us, it puffs up and ruins, and does not edify. It becomes a gleaming shackle of the soul, a wearisome pursuit, and a noisy burden.”


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