Why the Humanities Matter

Mark L. Melcher*

The following remarks on the influence of the humanities are excerpted from the article "Keep the Faith, Conservatives, and Support Your Local Humanities Department," which appeared in the June 18, 1997, issue of The Prudential Strategy Weekly:

As Washington's Squabbles Simmer The Long War For The Culture Continues. I would like to make what I consider to be a very important point about the constant political fights in Washington. To do this, I will lean heavily on the views of my oft-quoted good friend Claes Ryn, who teaches politics at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. Claes believes, and I heartily agree, that the principal battlefield in the war over what kind of nation America will he in the twenty-first century is not Washington.

Washington is one of the spoils of this war, the place where the results of the various skirmishes and engagements are written into the lawbooks. It is one of the places where a scorecard is kept. When the nation moves to the right, conservatives win more political fights in Washington. When the nation moves leftward, conservatives lose more. The movement itself is undoubtedly influenced by politicians. But the real movers are those individuals in society who fashion and influence the way the public thinks about things or, as Claes puts it, the way people "process information." The real movers, he says, are the people who "draw us into their way of experiencing the world." These people, Claes says, are the nation's artists, authors, entertainers, and advertisers.

The People Who Matter Are The Mythmakers, Not The Politicians. . . Claes explains that an individual's view of the world is shaped to an enormous degree by the artistic symbols to which he or she is exposed. Some such symbols strengthen character and imagination and, in doing so, promote a keener sense of reality. Others by contrast, destroy character and weaken an individual's ability to reason.

This, Claes says, explains why some people seem to cling so tenaciously to economic and social doctrines that have been discredited time and time again by both experience and theory. There is, of course, no end to examples of this phenomenon. Common cases in point include insistence by many people on higher and higher taxes, despite overwhelming evidence that nations with moderate tax rates are more prosperous than those with very high rates; resistance to real welfare reform, despite overwhelming evidence that the program has become erroneously pernicious for many of the very people it was designed to help; and support for educational policies that overwhelming evidence demonstrates are directly responsible for the decay the system has suffered over the past several decades.

This strange behavior isn't necessarily a function of low intelligence, Claes says. "In this century alone," he says, "one can point to many individuals of obvious intelligence who have spoken foolishly on some subject. A number of Nobel prize winners come to mind who have combined genius in some field with naiveté in others." And it certainly isn't that the practical arguments in their favor are decisive. The explanation, Claes says, lies in the framework from which people view things. And this framework is dictated not by politics, but by art, music, literature, television, movies, and advertising; by the symbols that inspire and shape the public's imagination and its dreams for the future.

. . . The Poets, Not The Policy Wonks. The article in which Claes set forth these thoughts some ten years ago, entitled "The Humanities and Moral Reality," does not offer specific examples of the enormous social, and ultimately political, power of literature and the arts. But they, of course, abound in world history.

It Was Ever So. . . Obvious examples include the Old Testament stories of Abraham, Ruth, Esther, Job, Jacob, David, Noah, and, of course, Adam and Eve, which have profoundly shaped the very nature of Western society. Erasmus's great satire, Praise of Folly, did as much to erode respect for the local hierarchy in the medieval Church as did Luther's Ninety-Five Theses. Shakespeare and Milton changed the way the world thinks about conflict and love and honor and God. Voltaire and Rousseau can take as much responsibility for the French revolution, which changed the Western world forever, as can the actions of Louis XVI or Marie Antoinette.

In more recent times, Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin also comes to mind. It had as much impact on the debate over slavery, and probably effected the resort to war, more than all of the debates in Congress combined. Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath and In Dubious Battle had enormous impact on the way millions of Americans viewed both the American labor movement and the early liberal agenda. Leon Uris's Exodus affected the attitude of untold Christian Americans toward the new state of Israel. And many of the most vociferous opponents of the death penalty still cite Reflections on the Guillotine by Albert Camus, as having changed their lives.

How many Americans had their patriotism indelibly stamped onto their souls by reading Whittier's popular poem, "Barbara Fritchie" (" 'Shoot, if you must this old gray head,/But spare your country's flag,' she said"), or Longfellow's "The Building of the Ship" ("Thou too, sail on, 0 ship of state!/Sail on, 0 Union, strong and great!/ Humanity with all its fears,/With all the hopes of future years,/Is hanging breathless on thy fate!), or Scott's "Love of Country" ("Breathes there the man with soul so dead/Who never to himself has said: "This is my own, my native land'?")?

How many young girls learned that sexual restraint was noble and good from reading Emily Dickinson's "The Charm"?

    A Charm invests a face
    Imperfectly beheld—
    The Lady dare not lift her Veil
    For fear it be dispelled—
    But peers beyond her mesh—
    And wishes—and denies—
    Lest Interview—annul a want
    that Image—satisfies—

Or from reading Dickinson's letters to Otis Lord. "Oh, my too beloved, save me from the idolatry which would crush us both. . . . Don't you know you are happiest while I withhold and not confer—don't you know that 'no' is the widest word we consign to Language? The 'Stile' is God's—My Sweet One---for your great sake—not mine—I will not let you cross—but it is all yours, and when it is right I will lift the Bars, and lay you in the Moss. . . . It is Anguish I long conceal from you to let you leave me, hungry, but you ask the divine Crust and that would doom the Bread."

Is it any wonder then, that those who would deconstruct American society, who hate its Judeo-Christian morality and its centuries old cultural habits and customs, have focused their attack on the traditional literary canon? As T S. Eliot observed, "the communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living."

In the October 1996 issue of Commentary, Norman Podhoretz writes, in a piece entitled "Liberalism and the Culture: A Turning of the Time?" that the left does not oppose the great books of Western civilization because they arc irrelevant. They do it, he says, because they are all too relevant.

. . . And Must Be So In The Future. In short, although the battles in Washington are important, they aren't the decisive ones. Just as Wellington noted that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, the battle for the soul of America will ultimately be won in the humanities classes of the nation's high schools, colleges, and universities. If Milton and Shakespeare die, just as sure as God made little green apples, so eventually will the conservative cause in Washington.

This is the belief, by the way, that underlies the mission statement of the National Humanities Institute, a nonprofit, Washington-based organization that "seeks to revitalize the humanities, and with them 'the culture,' as the only way of effecting real and lasting change" in America. In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that Claes is chairman of this organization and I serve on the board. For more information visit us on the Web at http://www.nhumanities.org/.

*Mark L. Melcher, Treasurer of the National Humanities Institute, is a Senior Vice President of Prudential Securities. [Back]

Updated 7 June 2023