I often wonder what drives poets to poverty, philosophers to destitution and artists to a similar fate. Very few gain fame, and fewer still while living. They lose all and give much, gushing their wisdom onto pages and canvases. But for what?
Throughout history, some no doubt thought of their livelihood, but even centuries ago there were stabler, more profitable jobs elsewhere. Why, then, live a life of misery for words, for art, for posterity? Perhaps these people who devoted themselves to the humanities were simply attempting to express the truth, goodness and beauty that chart the present and choreograph the future. The highest moments of human experience are often dulled and isolated at the hands of scientism — when we use science as the exclusive lens through which we view the world.
At Yale, it is our opportunity to renew, strengthen and invest ourselves in the study of the humanities — ensuring that one day, years down the line, the students that follow us will understand that the world cannot be encapsulated solely by ones and zeros.
Virtue and holiness, conscience and kindness, for example, cannot be viewed under a microscope. And yet, they are instrumental to happiness, to living the good life.
What life have the mathematicians and the scientists if ethics be damned, art be economized, and the meters and verses, which teach the soul to dance, be abandoned to the world of pure imagination?
Despite concerted attempts, imagination will not rot in darkness, nor art in obscurity, nor ethics in disrepute. They are innate because they are human. They demand our attention because they define us. The humanities, if studied carefully and intentionally, bind the rationality and irrationality in all of us.
If we’re only operating as homo empiricus, as humans dedicated solely to science and technological progress, the humanities become an irrelevant pastime. The university continues to accommodate the small community that still hopes for something different. But all the while, Yale satisfies the naysayers with the promise of “real-world application” and “practical use,” as though the humanities need a justification beyond what they are.
Faculty and students who are still dedicated to ancient and modern knowledge for its own sake and enrichment feel pigeonholed, as the world around them claims that they must be brought into the so-called “real world” with pragmatic curriculums and regression analyses.
What use is political science or philosophy or history if not to get a job after graduation? Wealth, notoriety, influence: these are what make us happy, supposedly. Machiavelli is left unquestioned, Fitzgerald is a tease and Aristotle is an irrelevant, bearded ancient. The modern university cannot quantify the mind in terms of plaques, titles, money or polling, so it relegates the antiquated humanities to being nothing more than a luxury, worth preserving in a tempered-glass, temperature-regulated showcase.
I do not mean to skewer the students or faculty in the vast array of STEM fields or doubt the sincerity of most of them in having an insatiable curiosity for the world and its wonders. Nor am I drawn to enter a shouting match of “bests” — a childish argument of who is more important. Rather, I want to suggest a renewed skepticism of our current course and caution us against alienation from what makes us human.
Under the definition of success that the capitalistic, nominally meritocratic system has inoculated the American public with, no other mindset but this one appears viable. The university corrupts its cause by deserting the life of the mind for the unsettling, ever-pressing anxiety to perform.
I confer then a suggestion to the modern university: renew faith in humanity by challenging the modern consensus on the humanities. If the university exists to spark the imagination and delve intimately into the world of transcendentals, if its worth is not found in fat checks or elite alumni but in education, I can think of no greater cause to champion than this one.
CARSON MACIK is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .