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Why Do We Need the Humanities?

Dante in the dark wood (detail from an illustration by Gustave Doré)

At The New Republic, four former university presidents offer short reflections on why the humanities are relevant to college education. An example of the reasoning on offer:

In my experience, business leaders and employers recognize the value of this marriage and look for it in our graduates. It is clear that to thrive in a society where they may have up to six different careers, business and STEM graduates need also to be curious and creative, to be critical thinkers and good communicators.

Mark Bauerlein at First Things says this instrumental justification for the humanities is a big part of the problem. Excerpt:

Unfortunately, even if true, those affirmations will not increase the popularity of humanities courses. What sophomore will be drawn to a course in Renaissance sculpture because it will enhance her critical thinking skills?

Only the actual materials will sustain the humanities, but we have to believe in them enough to say so. We need more conviction than this. We need to be able to say to incoming students, “In this course, you are going to encounter words and images and ideas that are going to change your life. We’ve got Hamlet and Lear, Achilles and David, Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Bennett, Augustine’s pears and Van Gogh’s stars—beauty and sublimity and truth. If you miss them, you will not be the person could be.”

I think that’s true. As you will no doubt tire of hearing between now and the time How Dante Can Save Your Life plays itself out, reading The Divine Comedy in a time of great personal crisis gave me a new vision of life, and brought me out of that crisis. My experience of the Commedia was exactly what Bauerlein describes above. Granted, I am ideologically predisposed to agree with Bauerlein, but it took a life-changing experience with this great work of art to make the principle real to me.

I did not come to Dante in an instrumental way, thinking that reading a Great Book would be edifying. I came to it because Dante’s plotting and language set the hook in me hard. I quickly came to see that this 14th-century poem about a lost and broken man’s pilgrimage to healing and wholeness had an enormous amount to do with me. Dante taught me to see myself, my world, and my God in a new light. I could have read all the moral, psychological, and theological principles at work in the Commedia in a nonfiction book. But they would not have affected me in the same way. As I write in the book, there is now neuroscientific research showing that our brains are wired to receive information more effectively if it is conveyed in the form of a story, and not only that, but if the story is conveyed in a way that we find beautiful. We are built to experience the world as story, as revelation; beauty really is a gateway to truth.

I have told the story of my life-changing experience with Dante as a story, for precisely this reason. How Dante is not really a book of literary analysis (though there is some of that), and it’s not a connect-the-dots instruction book. Rather, I’m trying to imitate to some degree Dante’s strategy: instead of telling you “do this,” I’m showing you how “doing that” worked in my experience, and, I hope, encouraging you to do the same.

I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time. I quickly became aware that I was reading the Commedia like a man lost at sea clings to a piece of driftwood, hoping it will carry him to dry land. But I didn’t start it thinking, “Ah, this Great Book will make me a better person, so I shall endeavor to read it for the sake of character building.” The trick, I think, was to have opened myself wholly to the story instead of sitting back from a certain distance, experiencing it as a literary artifact. The poet seduced me, and I willfully suspended belief and read it as if it were an account of something that actually happened. This is what we always do when we really get into a novel. I think that’s how Dante worked his magic on me.

To go back to Bauerlein’s point: I agree that we won’t get very far if we try to tell students that they should study the humanities because they will learn skills that will make them more effective at their jobs. How could you ever prove such a thing? And even if you could, it seems to me that some business school professor could come back and offer a course in Critical Thinking Skills that would cut through all the literary and aesthetic business to get right to the practical point.

It seems to me, based on my personal experience, that the better approach is to present the humanities as a romantic adventure in the search for Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. I had a pretty spotty humanities education, so you can imagine how thrilling it was for me to study The Odyssey with my 12 year old son, and to encounter it for the first time. It was adventure, it was joy, it was deep. And it was all a surprise to me, even though it ought not to have been.

I suppose one reason that it’s hard for colleges to teach the humanities in this way is that so many in the academy have murdered the humanities to dissect them for the sake of exposing how they’re all about power relationships and so forth. It’s like going to a liturgy led by a priest who doesn’t believe in the religion, and who uses his sermons to disenchant the congregation.

But I think it’s also true that we as a society have lost the sense that within the study of art, literature, and the humanities, there are things vital to shaping our souls, and to discovering and taking into ourselves what it means to be fully human. That Homer, Dante, Milton, Cervantes, Michelangelo, and all these great men saw more deeply into the human experience than almost any other, and came back to tell us what they learned, and to help us see what they saw. In the end, I think it comes down to a deadening of the soul among our people — that is, a sense that there is no need to learn or to experience anything beyond what we desire to learn and experience, because our desires are self-justifying, and do not need cultivation.

We keep returning on this blog, in various threads, to an argument in which a number of people sincerely don’t understand why so many of us traditionalist-minded folks see the present moment as a time of darkness, or at least not a time of uncomplicated enlightenment. After all, we are healthier and wealthier than at any time in history, and many of the indicators of social well being (e.g., the crime rate) show that we are safer and more at peace, and no generations have had more personal liberty to define their own lives as do Americans living now. How can this not be enough?

Well, let me ask you: there may be no healthier (in terms of the body), wealthier, safer, more peaceful, and free than Beverly Hills. Would you describe the people living there as at the pinnacle of human history? The Kardashians have it all; they are so rich and free that one of their number is changing his sex, because he can — and some call it, without irony, and in fact with enthusiasm, a superb example of the American Dream. I think there is something to that description, insofar as America has become all about liberating individual desire from the chains of the past, of prescription, of limits, of tradition, of any bounds.

But that is a nightmare to me, and not because I think it’s yucky for Bruce Jenner to choose to become a woman. It’s a nightmare for the same reason that Ulysses’s inspiring speech to his crew in Inferno XXVI is such a deadly deception, cloaking something base in the rhetoric of nobility. It’s the oldest lie in the world: Ye shall be as gods. To read Dante is to become aware of how the human heart deceives itself, and the mind’s eye loses its ability to see.

To immerse oneself in humanities is to become deeply acquainted with the most enduring wisdom of our species, to encounter what is best and what is worst in man, to learn to place ourselves within the Great Narrative of humanity, and to discover how we can and should write our own chapter, not as passive barbarians — rich in health, wealth, and liberty thought we may be — propelled through life by our own disordered desires, but rather as intelligent men and women who aspire to live by the better angels of our natures.

You know what I hope? That How Dante Can Save Your Life is a success, and opens the door to many others, both students and older people, to reading the Commedia. ittybittydanteAnd more than that, I hope it inspires other people write similar books about how going deep into Shakespeare, or Homer, or Milton, or the Italian Renaissance, and so forth, liberated them from the shackles of mundanity, and delivered them from the oppression of thinking, “Is this all there is?”

No, this is not all there is. The great humanists saw farther and deeper than you and I do. They have so much to show us. But first, we have to make a leap of faith in which we give ourselves over to their visions. We are all like Dante at the beginning of the poem, standing in a dark wood, unsure whether we can trust anybody. Put yourself in the pilgrim’s shoes, standing there looking at the ghost of an ancient poet, a man whose work you revere. As I write in How Dante:

The shade of an ancient poet appears and promises to deliver you from your misery but says that the road ahead is going to be arduous, even horrible. A reasonable man would have said to the ghost, “Wait a minute, you died ages ago. I must be having a hallucination. How do I know you are who you say you are? I have to think about this.” But the pilgrim did not say that.

Nor did he say, “Thanks, but I’ll wait here; things might get better.” He didn’t say, “How can I trust that you know the way out? Maybe you are wrong. Maybe you will lead me to ruin.” And Dante didn’t say, “Show me the whole picture, the entire map ahead, and then I will follow you.”

He said none of those things. He simply said, “I trust you, and I will follow you.” That was a leap of faith.

Though Virgil had been sent by God, via his messenger Beatrice, on a mission to save Dante, the master didn’t lay it all out for the lost pilgrim in their first meeting. Dante was in no condition to see the whole picture. All Dante knew in that moment was that if he stayed where he was, he would suffer and die—and that before him stood an authority figure he trusted to lead him to safety.

Reading those opening lines, it struck me: I am Dante, and Dante is offering to be my Virgil.

Note well that Dante the pilgrim didn’t choose to follow Virgil because he thought all that walking would do him good, or because it sounded like fun. He didn’t follow Virgil because he knew exactly where the journey was going to lead in the end. Dante gave himself over to Virgil because he knew that he could no longer stay in the dark wood, for he would die, and because he trusted the older man to take him to a better place, in the end. The Commedia is really a journey into our own hearts.

If academicians would present the humanities as romance, as mystery, as passion-filled voyages of discovery, as opposed to the dull, technocratic rationales given by these college presidents, maybe they would find more young people coming to embrace their study. If professors would rediscover why they fell in love with art and literature in the first place — the wonder of it all! — maybe they would convert others.

If the professionals approached the humanities not as scientists, but as witnesses, maybe the humanities would live again. Great works of art and literature are ghosts who appear to us in the dark wood, and offer us a way to enlightenment. But first you have to believe that enlightenment is both possible and desirable. I don’t know, I’m probably hopelessly naive here, but all I can tell you is this: I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see — and I owe much to Dante Alighieri and his miraculous poem.

It can happen to you, too.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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