Now, despite the President’s magic thinking, Dr. Anthony Fauci tells us we’re stuck with this pandemic for another year or so. That’s a long time to be cooped up, with nothing but re-runs of West Wing, video reunions, embarrassing glimpses of Fox News and quarantinis. We’re becoming inured to the daily revelations about COVID-19.
What may be worse is what happens if Trump is defeated and there is no longer a daily outrage or a common dismay. We’ll be on our own to let our minds deteriorate, trapped inside the narrowing cone of our shadowed lives. Or not! Let’s not waste this nasty pandemic! Maybe this is our time, such a time as this, when we may be forced to re-think our relationship with the humanities.
I fear we — many of us — have lost our appetite for literature, history, art, philosophy, theology and ethics. To the extent we are active, we are obsessed with science, technology and finance – the tickets to success. Otherwise, we are seduced to passivity by video images and smart phones.
Of course science and technology are important. But so is reading, and the modes of thought reading encourages: complex, probing, reflective. The nightly news deadens the differentiation between consumption and digestion without even a bow to critical thinking. As Yogi Berra said, “”If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.”
Congress made a strong case for the liberal arts in 1995 when it funded the National Endowment for the Humanities, declaring “[a] high civilization must not limit its efforts to science and technology alone but must give full value and support to the other great branches of scholarly and cultural activity in order to achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present and a better view of the future….Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens….”
The humanities offer thoughtful attention to enduring concerns about the principles that undergird our society and the aspirations that uplift it. As David Brooks has stated, thinking deep for meaning is the medication for the soul.
The humanities are open to us now — even in our confinement. Connecticut’s great universities and museums are alive with programs. Libraries are offering books in all forms and forums in which to read them. Concerts and lectures and gallery tours are just a touch away. Our friends (well, some of them, anyway) might actually welcome our thoughts about the humanities.
To fail to seek the “wisdom and vision” the humanities offer is to consign ourselves to ghettos of the mind and spirit, to prostrate ourselves before the vandals who’ve hijacked the government. We seem to be burdened by some form of psychosclerosis. The pandemic may be sapping our spirit and causing us to insulate ourselves from the shrill voices, demagoguery, tinny entertainment and cultural shallowness. But it will end. As much as possible, we should use this time of pandemic to avail ourselves of the intellectual and cultural nourishments of the humanities that can lead us to a flourishing life.
James K. Robertson Jr. is a lawyer and ordained minister.