“The humanities help you to grow your soul”

Paula Fredriksen *79, the Aurelio Professor of Scripture Emerita at Boston University, is a leading expert on the history of ancient Christianity and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The following speech on the future of the humanities was delivered Oct. 12, 2013, at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences induction ceremony in Cambridge, Mass.

Art, music, drama; language, literature, and poetry; history, philosophy, religion — these are some of the premier subjects comprising that area of our culture that we designate “the Humanities” — the disciplined study of the human experience. As a family of academic disciplines, the Humanities are a product particularly of the European Renaissance. Those were the good old days, when “man was the measure of all things.” The products of humanistic scholarship presupposed a certain construction of intellect, or of mind, or of self, as an autonomous “knower.” This idea in turn reflected commitments to or presuppositions about the individual as a moral agent freely exercising his [or her] will. And in these good old days, no chasm yawned between the humanities and science, which was the disciplined study of the universe. Both stood on a continuum of meaning that in a sense defined Western culture.

That was then. This is now. Despite Descartes’ best efforts, this humanist foundation has eroded. How? We could list the names of those thinkers whose work marks the stages on our road to post-modernism — Marx, Darwin, Einstein; Freud, Wittgenstein, Heidegger. But such a response would itself be “humanist,” an attempt to identify causes through the generation of an intellectual history. Let me pull the camera further back. Looking at where we are in 2013, what defines the cultural gap between the Renaissance and us, here, now?

The answer lies in a huge mosaic of issues, changes, and factors. The one most evident to me is the commercial development of technology. This child of the Scientific Revolution has grown much more powerful, socially, than its parent. (Creationists use email, too.) Technology indexes man’s control over the universe. And this control — most significantly, in the production of energy — has been rewarded by huge influxes of money and power. It has profoundly affected human society for good and for ill; profoundly affected, mostly for ill, the planet itself. Technology’s rewards — power and wealth — are immediate and quantifiable. More than anything else, it is these developments in the commercial development of technology that have displaced humanism. And if humanism has been displaced, where does this leave the Humanities?

What are the Humanities good for? What metric measures their worth? We were told a few weeks ago that people who read Chekov score higher on psychology exams measuring “empathy” than people who do not. That’s nice. People who read good literature tend to write better than people who do not. This saying seems to commend literature, but it’s really a commendation of good “communication skills,” something that many employers look for. That’s nice, too. These apologetic efforts interpret and measure the Humanities’ practical utility: majoring in English or in Comp lit, they urge reassuringly, doesn’t necessarily disqualify you from having a job.

I’m reminded of the New Yorker cartoon wherein a Mafioso addresses his elementary-school-age son and asks, “And how do you expect to be a made man without a good liberal arts education?”

Money complicates this picture in simple ways. Sciences bring huge grants to institutions; the humanities do not. The price of a college or of a university education has skyrocketed. What is the value of a degree that costs over $200,000.00 and prepares you for no job? How, practically, can a philosophy degree help you to pay back your educational loans? Surely the independently wealthy, alone, can be indifferent to this problem. The rest, surely, can only rejoice if their 17-year-old opts for Wharton over St. John’s. Where does this leave the Humanities?

I was born in 1951. When I was a child, one of the earliest and most significant, most imaginatively liberating leaps forward was the transition from picture books to chapter books. A page of unbroken prose allowed you as a reader to conjure persons and places however you wanted. A vestige of this value lingers in our hesitation to see a film made of a favorite book: we have already pictured the characters in a certain way, and don’t want the disruption of seeing them embodied by somebody different. (I also have to add that Colin Firth helped me to get over this with Mr. Darcy.)

I started teaching university in 1977. By the early 1990s, I finally acceded to my students’ requests that I assign a textbook. The sources and articles that filled my syllabus were too various for them: they wanted a unified view of the material. By the mid-2000s, I could no longer tolerate doing my own homework assignments, because I could not stand all the visual noise on the textbook page. Sidebars, maps, and graphs; photos, timelines, study questions: the spread was so congested, so broken by boxes imitating Windows on a computer screen, that I could scarcely pick out the exiguous thread of prose supposedly binding them all together.

What had happened? The short answer, I think, is: computers. (We can now include in this class iPads and iPhones.) Reading, too, is a technē, a skill that enables control over texts. What I have noticed as an educator is that the physical and cognitive act of reading has become progressively harder for the generations of students who have passed through the classroom. Images, sound-bites, the staccato communications of social media: this is what they read. Connected prose is laborious. (Grammar is defunct.) Think again of the Renaissance, and wonder: if the very nature of literacy is changing — indeed, if it has changed already — then where does this leave the Humanities?

My short answer is, I don’t know. I am an historian: I understand things only after they’ve happened. Just as the digital revolution has challenged our idea of what a “book” is, surely all of these seismic changes in our culture and society will alter also our idea of what a “university” is, of what a “department” is, of what a “major” is, of what a “degree” is — and indeed, this is already happening too. The modern university is really the brain-child of the Renaissance also. It’s had a glorious 600-years run, but what comes next I don’t know.

So I cannot say what institutional shapes the Humanities will take in the future; and I don’t know what changing standards of literacy will do to humanistic learning. I do know that the Humanities help you to grow your soul. They articulate and enrich your experience of living. They connect us with each other, across cultures, across centuries, across generations. This is a glorious enrichment.

I’d like to close by briefly telling a story of two experiences that I had in the past couple of weeks. The first is about me and Homer, the second is about me, Beethoven, and the City of Boston. Book 17 of The Odyssey: Odysseus is home, he’s mad, and he’s been disguised by Athena to look like a beggar so that nobody, for his own safety, will recognize him. But Athena forgot about one ‘person’ — Odysseus’ dog, Argos. Argos hears -- he’s blind, he’s wasted, he’s covered with lice and he’s lying on a dung heap, but he hears his master’s voice when Odysseus is speaking to a palace servant. In that moment, Argos lifts his head, pricks up his ears, wags his tail — and dies. (I also saw Old Yeller because, as I said, I was born in 1951.) As I sat sobbing on my porch over the issue of the New Yorker that had translated this particular paragraph of The Odyssey and my husband said, “What’s wrong?” I said, “Homer does have legs. The dog scene still works.”

The Boston Philharmonic, playing at the BSO, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Benjamin Zander was conducting and he talked about the way he had looked at Beethoven’s notations about tempo for the Ninth Symphony and made an interesting observation. Each of the first three movements, if you kept to the metronome that Beethoven indicated, lasted exactly 13 minutes, and the choral movement, the glorious fourth movement, lasted 21 minutes, which meant that the entire symphony was brought home in exactly 60 minutes. But the context of this performance of the Ninth Symphony was also special. This symphony had been canceled; it had originally been slated for Patriots’ Day, the day of the Marathon. As a result, now that it had been rescheduled and was being performed now, over 100 of the injured from the Marathon were also present at Symphony Hall, and so were a goodly number of the first responders. Off Zander went, carrying the rest of us with him. The symphony was played at a glorious gallop. It was all we could do, by the time the chorus was going, to stop from standing, as the chorus sang. There was incredible electricity in the room. When the symphony ended, everybody jumped up and applauded, and the perfect stranger, a nice lady, standing next to me flung her arms around me. There was incredible electricity in that room, made possible through music and through human community.

Human interconnectedness. The power of disciplined imagination and of feeling. No matter how our culture goes on to configure itself, people will crave this interconnection. Humans are the hardware, but the Humanities is the software. Digital revolutions notwithstanding, we — we the people — have the priority. After all, we were the first World Wide Web. Thank you.