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Saturday, December 28, 2013

In Defense of the Liberal Arts

"Literature is more important than math and science, because while math and science can tell us 'what' and maybe a little bit of 'how', literature tells us 'why'."

This quotation from a teaching mentor of mine (who quickly went on to express a balanced need for both the sciences and the arts) explains my dogged determination to read every scrap of good literature on the planet.  An ambitious goal to be sure.  But one that has enslaved me in glorious, bibliophilic chains from the time Mrs. Livengood gave me a foundation in phonics almost 18 years ago.

I have always wondered "why."  I was the three-year-old that kept asking "why."  I was the little kid who got into everything because I needed to know "why."  And I became the internally-conflicted adult who still loves research and paper writing because I want to know "why."

Why do we suffer?
Why do we seek happiness?
Why do we crave beauty?
Why do people fall in love?
Why do we exist?
Why EVERYTHING?

As Orson Scott Card memorably says of Bean in Ender's Shadow, "The universe was full of locked doors, and he had to get his hands on every key."
The arts are the essential keys to unlock the doors of the sciences.  The sciences give us data, but they cannot give us interpretation of the data.  They cannot give us meaning.  And we must have meaning. It is mapped into our DNA and programmed into us from creation.
Science can only observe.
We suffer.  We seek happiness.  We crave beauty.  We fall in love.  We exist.
Yes. That's obvious.  But WHY?

A few weeks ago, my sister-in-law had me over for a movie and some tea.  It's an old tradition of ours from before she was dating my brother and was known to my family only as my best friend.  This time, we finished the BBC version of Dickens' Edwin Drood, and we took advantage of Netflix to look for something new. We stumbled upon a documentary about stress and decided to see what it was all about.  I was enlightened...

Apparently, humans have little caps on the ends of their DNA strands that hold the strands together.  Over time, severe stress erodes these caps and causes the strands to fray.  It sounds painful, but mostly it is a silent degeneration with long term affects.  What is incredible about this phenomenon is that we have an enzyme in our bodies that heals the cap when it starts to dissolve.  How does that enzyme go into high gear and start healing?  When we interact with people, show compassion, and understand others.  Human interaction (...stories...) brings healing.  It is absolutely necessary to life.

The liberal arts are formal training in that sort of humanness.  Humans might be able to eke out an existence on the sparkling crumbs of the sciences.  But whenever we have tried that, we always end up starving for something more.

I'm just a recent college graduate.  I don't have a full picture of the world.  But from what I can tell, my culture isn't doing such a good job with promoting human thriving.
STEM schools are on the rise.  And I hear a lot of complaints from parents of high school students about how English teachers don't relate literature to life.  Many of them don't seem to see the point of a class that obviously won't help kids get high paying jobs.  As one mother recently asked me, "Why should my son read a book that has nothing to do with him?" It's a valid question.  One that should be answered every day in the latent atmosphere of the classroom by the teacher's passion for critical thinking.  One that reveals a lack of time spent in good literature that gets us outside of ourselves.

Literature (and the arts as a whole) is the very stuff of life. Its essence should be scrambling off the pages of the works and into the hearts of school aged readers everywhere.  Teachers should know this! Actually, the hard thing is keeping literature from connecting to absolutely everything.  It should not be a struggle to apply it somewhere (unless you're teaching sub-par literature...).  Because literature is where we stop the theorizing and test the ideas.  It's where we learn that there's a world out there that's something beyond a scrap of information or a number.  It's when "a population of 7 billion" becomes Fitzgerald's "the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired."  It breathes life into our sterile laboratories and gives us something real.  It is, in the words of the brilliant Tennessee Williams, what gives you "the truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion."

Science and math may seem more practical than literature, but that's only because we are so utilitarian. When you rip science and math out of the context of the metanarrative, you end up with nihilism, atheism, purposelessness.  Which explains a lot about my generation and our search for meaning outside of a screen.

God gave us the arts as a bridge from facts to Truth.  We must not allow the sciences to be their tyrants. Rather we should allow them to inform each other without suppressing one because of our allegiance to function.  

I will say it until my students send me their grandchildren to teach.  Until I can't hold a whiteboard marker with my arthritic hands.  Until I can't see the letters of Hopkins' "As Kingfishers Catch Fire," and I have to ask someone to read to me the opening words of Island of the World and the last lines of The Great Gatsby so I can hear the music and feel the chill of those painfully beautiful words.

Participation in the liberal arts is a sign of human thriving.

We need them.  Our students need them.  Our children need them.
So do something productive today.
Watch a play.  Paint a landscape.  Read a book.
Enjoy the bridge.   

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