Trouble Thinking

November 29, 2010

On the Value of Humanity

Filed under: News — Tags: , , , , — Chris @ 6:54 pm

I’ve spent most of the day working on and off on an article about what makes up personal taste in art, through the lens of discovering or rediscovering music by artists I had previously written off as not to my liking. I’m excited about the material, but I just can’t get the essay to work the way I want to, so I’ve decided to shelve it for the time being. That’s alright; it works out like that sometimes. Hopefully I can clean it up and make use of it soon. Fortunately, I’ve found something else to write about.

As you can probably guess from the fact that I used the phrase “through the lens of” up there, I have a BA in English Literature. It can get tiring defending my field of study, and those like it, as “not useless,” especially in the face of stories like this: SUNY Albany, in an effort to save money, is cutting five of its humanities programs.

Now, I could write a lengthy, cutting editorial on why this is a misguided decision, but fortunately Gregory Petsko, a Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry from Brandeis University, has already done so—and far, far more effectively than I could have ever dreamed. If you have any opinion whatsoever regarding the continued teaching of humanities at the collegiate level, you need to read this. Not only is it a striking, well composed defense of the humanities from a scientist’s perspective, it is also the academic equivalent of a sick burn. An excerpt, for your elucidation:

“You could fix the enrollment problem tomorrow by instituting a mandatory core curriculum that included a wide range of courses.

Young people haven’t, for the most part, yet attained the wisdom to have that kind of freedom without making poor decisions. In fact, without wisdom, it’s hard for most people. That idea is thrashed out better than anywhere else, I think, in Dostoyevsky’s parable of the Grand Inquisitor, which is told in Chapter Five of his great novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In the parable, Christ comes back to earth in Seville at the time of the Spanish Inquisition. He performs several miracles but is arrested by Inquisition leaders and sentenced to be burned at the stake. The Grand Inquisitor visits Him in his cell to tell Him that the Church no longer needs Him. The main portion of the text is the Inquisitor explaining why. The Inquisitor says that Jesus rejected the three temptations of Satan in the desert in favor of freedom, but he believes that Jesus has misjudged human nature. The Inquisitor says that the vast majority of humanity cannot handle freedom. In giving humans the freedom to choose, Christ has doomed humanity to a life of suffering.

That single chapter in a much longer book is one of the great works of modern literature. You would find a lot in it to think about. I’m sure your Russian faculty would love to talk with you about it – if only you had a Russian department, which now, of course, you don’t.”

Hell yes. That’s just a taste. Read the rest. It’s good for you.

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