Defending the humanities in a brave new world

Before anything else, literature has always been my passion. Not code, not technology, and certainly not math. Nothing therefore concerns me more than when I see students trying to learn the dry, hard skills with little or no knowledge of, or for that matter interest in, great literary works. I have noticed in my almost 20 years of teaching, that when I make simple literary references, such as ‘Oh this sounds Orwellian’ or ‘yes, it’s a brave new world’ – I am met with quizzical or blank faces. The joke is on me.

That’s the reason why I cringe when I hear of the ‘way of the future’ where there will be non-structured online teaching, making students choose just what they want to learn. But how can they choose if they don’t know what they are choosing and don’t know its long-term impact? A choice is generally between two things one knows – and therefore one may weigh the pros and cons of each. But if they are told, as most parents will tell their children, ‘what will you do with a degree in the humanities and who will hire you?’ then the choices they will make is clear.

While my article applies to the humanities in general, including history, philosophy, ethics and others, my focus here is specifically on literature, and here’s why: literature transports us, not as virtual reality would. Virtual Reality gives us the semblance, the fantasy, of transporting us physically into a new spacial reality where interaction with the ‘real’ others is limited or non-existent. It therefore transports us but does not transform us.

Literature, on the other hand, transports us and then delves with us into the deepest corners of the brains and hearts of others, how they think, behave, love and hate. It asks questions about the whys and hows. It creates empathy, compassion and understanding. It seeks truth and imparts wisdom. It sharpens our senses of beauty and justice. It saddens and delights us. It makes us think of things beyond our little individualistic selves. It transforms our ways of thinking and opens up new horizons before us. It lays bare the human soul and its innermost desires and passions, weaknesses and failures. It makes us laugh at our foibles and at the folly of humankind. It makes us cry at the wickedness and evil that surrounds us. It is a mirror of society held up before our faces, challenging us to confront our traditional ways of thinking. It is a pat on the shoulder of ‘you are not alone; and what you are facing is not unique.’

Why should one care that a whale was seeking a specific sailor to kill? What monetary use will it be to know that someone knows why a caged bird sings? Or what a tree gives? What financial gain will it benefit us to watch a king go mad as his daughters abandon him? What will it benefit us from reading someone running a kite? Or from someone killing a mockingbird? And most importantly, why on earth should we care about war and peace in some distant land of which we know very little, or some brothers with a foreign name such as Karamazov, or the sons of another ‘foreigner’ called Gabalawi?

Thousands of great literary pieces exist and they create a frame of reference for us in order to better understand our past, present and future. Every novel is a journey and a discovery; every poem an experience of fierce intensity. Great literary works have a profoundness even without the complexity of language. Listen to this for example:

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee…

It instills in us the sense of freedom and justice, the values of right and wrong. That’s why fascists, dictators and torturers hate books and many have gone as far as burning them. That’s why populists and fanatics have never read literary works. I would be frightened of a generation whose main focus was technology without ethics and compassion to support it.

Indeed, we live now in the best of times, and the worst of times. The future of humanity depends upon the younger generations, as did our current existence depend upon past generations. We are at the early seconds of the dawn of amazing technological advances. Let us remain grounded in the humanities. Let us impart that immersive knowledge to those who will only enjoy virtual and immersive realities as they sit hidden behind their goggles in the confinement of their bubbles and silos.