Image courtesy St Mary’s University, Twickenham
Last night I attended a lecture by Professor Sarah Churchwell to celebrate the launch of a new BA Liberal Arts degree at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, on the importance of the Humanities. It seems a necessary statement to make. The university where I teach is opening a Humanities degree at a time when departments in that field are closing around the country (History in Sunderland; English at Portsmouth), and there have been concerns over the future of the sector as a whole. People who work in it are feeling defensive, with the sense the Government is only interested in STEM subjects, or in subjects that can be taught in a narrowly vocational way, leading to defined, definite, concrete jobs.
Churchwell spoke about the value and the necessity of the study of the Humanities, drawing links between American Blues (we had just heard a version of Catfish Blues played by a fusion group mixing Blues with classical Indian instrumentation), slavery, film archiving, the Holocaust, and fascism and the ideology behind America First – the subject of her last book.
She spoke, too, about current global issues like the Coronavirus epidemic, saying that medical knowledge here is not enough, as you can’t learn from a medical emergency in real time: “You won’t stop an epidemic if you don’t understand politics, human behaviour, history.” And the same goes for the migration and refugee crisis: “Everything happens in a political, social, historical, medical context, and the Humanities’ business is the understanding of context.”
She spoke, too, about the advances of technology, and how it’s not enough to have the technical skills to invent new machines and mechanisms; you’ve got to understand the social and ethical effects they bring into play. Her example here was Facebook. By not understanding – and not caring to understand – the implications of uncontrolled and unregulated political advertising on his platform, he allowed the undermining of democracy in the 2016 American election.
Her lecture made me think of Lorrie Moore’s brilliant short story ‘Dance in America’ (you can hear Louise Erdrich read it on the New Yorker podcast here). The story is about a probably 30-something dance teacher visiting an old college friend during a work trip teaching ‘Dance in the Schools’ in rural Pennsylvania. The friend – Cal – lives in a big old unrenovated former frat house with his wife, Simone, and their son Eugene, who is seven years old, and has cystic fibrosis – which is likely to kill him before he even reaches adulthood.
The story is partly about the narrator’s self-image as a former performer (artist) gone to seed and second-rate work, and it’s partly about how how we conceptualise and respond to our impotence in the face of illness and mortality. (It’s about other things too: it’s one of Moore’s best stories.) The relation between these two things is laid out clearly quite early on the story, when Cal says to Moore’s dancer (we haven’t met Eugene yet, only been told about him):
“It’s not that I’m not for the arts,” says Cal. “You’re here; money for the arts brought you here. That’s wonderful. It’s wonderful to fund the arts. It’s wonderful; you’re wonderful. The arts are so nice and wonderful. But really–I say, let’s give all the money, every last fucking dime, to science.”
What is wonderful about the story is that it does not contradict that sentiment, but it shows how we as people are bigger than it. Cal and Simone, he a college teacher, she a painter, don’t treat Eugene as a problem to be solved or saved by science, but as a person. And so does the Moore’s dancer. That’s what the Humanities do; they do put our problems in context, and – Churchwell was very clear on this point – they critique that context.
Studying the Humanities (or the Arts) don’t make you a better person, Churchwell said, and Moore’s protagonist is a great example of that. She is a disappointed, self-deprecating – and self-deprecated – person, as much ruined by chronic irony as buoyed up and saved by it. A classic Lorrie Moore character, in other words. She spouts opaque homilies about the value of art that she doesn’t even pretend to believe in herself (“My head fills with my own yack”), and relies on knee-jerk superiority towards the people who are unimpressed by her exertions (“They ask why everything I make seems so ‘feministic’. ‘I think the word is feministical,’ I say.”)
But what she can do, faced the terrible exuberance, wit and lust-for-life embodied in the questioning, curious, imperious person of Eugene, is dance. When it is bedtime, she leads the family in their nightly routine of dancing – to Kenny Loggins – and “march, strut, slide to the music. We crouch, move backward, then burst forward again.” When Eugene is too tired to continue, she stands with him, and moves more slowly, responding to his needs, to his context.
She does all this almost without thinking, almost intuitively. But that’s the difference between the Arts and the Humanities. The Arts can be instinctive, and intuitive. It’s the Humanities’ job to do that thinking, that analysis, that contextualising for them. Moore doesn’t labour the point – she doesn’t return to the question of how and whether the Arts (and the Humanities) can or should measure up to Science, but she shows that what they do is different, and compatible, and both equally necessary.
Certainly, I think Churchwell would be more concrete in her pushback against Cal’s “give every last fucking dime to science”. What? You think simply chucking money at the problem would make it go away? ‘Science’ is not an all-knowing, all-seeing, altruistic entity that cures diseases with a wave of a magic wand. It is embedded and embodied in human structures, and it is those structures – not the petri dishes in the lab – that the Humanities want to, and need to, muscle in on and critique. Science doesn’t just march, strut and slide forwards. It crouches, moves backward, then bursts forwards.
Say Science comes up with a cure for Eugene’s Cystic Fibrosis, but then wants to sell it to him for $272,000 per year? What does that do to Cal and Simone? Does their health insurance cover it? I doubt it, seeing as their dining room has saucepans in it to catch rainwater. ($272,000 is the current cost in the US of the drug Orkambi, the best current fit for extending lives of sufferers. It has been estimated that the cost of generic version of the drug is $5,000 per year.)
Art can’t do what Science can do. It can’t cure disease. It can console us and distract us and energise us, and help us understand why we’re bothering to try. The Humanities are a necessary corollary to the whole process. They provide the context – the continually evolving, continually self-critiquing context – in which both Science and Art can try to improve the quality of our lives. As Moore has it:
I am thinking of the dancing body’s magnificent and ostentatious scorn. This is how we offer ourselves, enter heaven, enter speaking: we say with motion, in space, This is what life’s done so far down here; this is all and what and everything it’s managed—this body, these bodies, that body—so what do you think, Heaven? What do you fucking think?
The Humanities help us ask that question.