In the last couple of weeks, more than one student has emailed me a link to this New York Times article about how the humanities are struggling to prove their worth in this recession. Over Shabbat I read two articles in the current issue of The New Republic that address the question, by the two Big Leons:

As usual, Leon Wieseltier is both pugnacious and stirring. Unsurprisingly, for the Literary Editor of TNR, he writes “In tough times, of all times, the worth of the humanities needs no justifying.” Of course not. Yet evidently they do, at least according to the NYT. And here Wieseltier does surprise, not so much for the eloquence of his defense, as for the inspiring spirit that animates it:

The reason is that it will take many kinds of sustenance to help people through these troubles. Many people will now have to fall back more on inner resources than on outer ones. They are in need of loans, but they are also in need of meanings. The external world is no longer a source of strength. The temper of one’s existence will therefore be significantly determined by one’s attitude toward circumstance, its cruelties and its caprices. Poor people and hounded people have always known this, but now the middle class is getting its schooling in stoicism. After all, bourgeois life was devised as an insulation against physical and social vulnerabilities, as a system of protections and privileges secured honestly by work; but the insulation is ripping and the protections are vanishing. We are in need of fiscal policy and spiritual policy. And spiritually speaking, literature is a bailout, and so is art, and philosophy, and history, and the rest. These are assets in which we may all hold majority ownership; assets of which we cannot be stripped, except by ourselves. I do not mean to be too sentimental about the humanities as they are conducted in the American academy: just yesterday there arrived from the press of a distinguished university the galleys of a book called Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking, written by the director of a humanities center at another university. That is not what Erich Auerbach had in mind. Still, what ails the humanities is not as egregious as the assault on them. Regression analysis will not get us through the long night. We need to know more about the human heart than the study of consumer behavior can teach. These are the hours when the old Penguin paperbacks must stand us in good stead. It was for now that we read them then.

This is a powerful argument, because Wieseltier sidesteps the question of financial efficacy, and instead reminds us of the other kinds of resources necessary to get through a depression. This is precisely the moment when the humanities are most valuable, because we are reminded of other frames of determining value besides money.

In the same issue, Leon Botstein–president of Bard College, educational theorist, orchestra conductor–writes about the commencement exercises for a degree-granting program Bard runs in an eastern New York prison. Sixteen students studied traditional liberal arts, including literature, philosophy, history, and mathematics. In a similar vein to Wieseltier, Botstein draws out the implications of his program for the rest of us:

What really moved me and my Bard colleagues to tears as we listened to the words of the four representatives of the Class of 2009 was the recognition of how weak the love of learning is among those for whom the privilege of moving seamlessly from high school into college is taken for granted. Why can we not engender the same motivation and attachment to a life of the mind when there are few real constraints on our students? In these times of economic distress, there is ever more skepticism about the utility of fields of study in the humanities, social sciences, and the sciences, which appear to have no immediate practical benefits. But, in the prisoners in Bard’s program, we saw something we rarely see on our own campuses: recognition of the deep value of the pursuit of inquiry for its own sake.

As we approach Passover on the Jewish calendar, and our thoughts turn to freedom, I am reminded in reading both of these pieces of the importance of the link between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot. While many many Jews celebrate Passover and the freedom it commemorates, far fewer observe Shavuot and the giving of the Torah that it commemorates. The freedom of Passover is incomplete without the commitment to a way of life of goodness and meaning. Somehow, seemingly in the absence of freedom, the prisoners educated by Botstein discovered meaning and the deeper freedom that many of us on the outside–who have the chance to participate in politics and society and the economy–fail to grasp. At Passover we praise God as the One who “took us out from servitude to freedom, from mourning to great joy.” Both the economy and the prisoners of Botstein’s story remind us that true freedom and true joy come from sources within.


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