Sunday, March 4, 2012

Literature And Human Nature

Marilynne Robinson, author of Gilead, one of my favorite books, points us to the link between a healthy imagination and a strong community
. . . I hope I have made clear my belief that the more generous the scale at which imagination is exerted, the healthier and more humane the community will be. There is a great deal of cynicism at present, among Americans, about the American population. Someone told me recently that a commentator of some sort had said, “The United States is in spiritual free-fall.” When people make such remarks, such appalling judgments, they never include themselves, their friends, those with whom they agree. They have drawn, as they say, a bright line between an “us” and a “them.” Those on the other side of the line are assumed to be unworthy of respect or hearing, and are in fact to be regarded as a huge problem to the “us” who presume to judge “them.”
This tedious pattern has repeated itself endlessly through human history and is, as I have said, the end of community and the beginning of tribalism.
Robinson then goes on to discuss the role of education, especially an education rich in the humanities.
From time to time I, as a professor in a public university, receive a form from the legislature asking me to make an account of the hours I spend working. I think someone ought to send a form like that to the legislators. The comparison might be very interesting. The faculty in my acquaintance are quite literally devoted to their work, almost obsessive about it. They go on vacation to do research. Even when they retire they don’t retire. I have benefited enormously from the generosity of teachers from grade school through graduate school. They are an invaluable community who contribute as much as legislators do to sustaining civilization, and more than legislators do to equipping the people of this country with the capacity for learning and reflection, and the power that comes with that capacity. Lately we have been told and told again that our educators are not preparing American youth to be efficient workers. Workers. That language is so common among us now that an extraterrestrial might think we had actually lost the Cold War.
The intellectual model for most of the older schools in America—for all of them, given the prestige and influence of the older schools—was a religious tradition that loved the soul and the mind and was meant to encourage the exploration and refinement of both of them. Recent statistics indicate American workers are the most productive in the world by a significant margin, as they have been for as long as such statistics have been ventured. If we were to retain humane learning and lose a little edge in relative productivity, I would say we had chosen the better part. Since we need not choose between one and the other, I think we ought to reconsider the pressure, amounting sometimes to hostility, that has lately been brought to bear on our educational culture at every level, particularly in the humanities and the arts. [Emphasis mine]
I wish I could share Robinson's optimism, but given political machinations locally and in Pierrie, I am preparing for increased tribalism.  Still, it is only a person of the arts who can remind us:

It is very much in the gift of the community to enrich individual lives, and it is in the gift of any individual to enlarge and enrich community.

The great truth that is too often forgotten is that it is in the nature of people to do good to one another.
From Robinson's lips to God's ears.

1 comment:

caheidelberger said...

Heady stuff, definitely worth discussing... but we're going to need new legislators to allow that conversation to even start in Pierre.