Sunday, 3 June 2012

The Non-Humanities

Published in The Clearing House, Vol. 38, No. 3 (Nov., 1963)

The non-humanities are those self-made bogs of messiness and mediocrity that consume all our energy in just keeping one foot unstuck after the next. They leave us no margin of push to become superlative. The non-humanities are things like auto smog slowly corrupting our lungs and advertising superlatives inexorably diminishing our imaginations. They are whatever in the humanly contrived landscape of mass production and mass communication keeps the child from possessing his sense of wonder to the grave. Plastic flowers, jerrybuilt houses, junkyards, TV dinners, all the “instant” substitutes that are supposed to spell P-R-O-G-R-E-S-S, but in fact represent retrogression to the almost vegetative.

I suspect that the cause of much of our frustration in not disabusing our students of their complacent acceptance of this trash is that we have miscalculated the nature of the challenge facing the humanist. Until almost yesterday, the humanities were the systematic introduction to Greek and Roman literature of a tiny ruling elite; then, in the nineteenth century, the middle classes got on the bottom rung of education and demanded that the humanities include vernacular literatures, then even contemporary letters. We now witness a final enfranchisement: the rest of mankind wants a say in what he should and can learn; hence movies and TV, newspapers and magazines filter into the classroom.

Generally, our strategy calls for showing that these new media or institutions can produce a few first-rate things. The tradition of the humanist who husbands excellence wherever and whenever it can be found prompts us to look at contemporary life and institutions for the best we can find there. The whole idea here seems to be that if you can interest enough of the new patrons in the superlative, they will create a demand so strong that it will stanch the flow of ugly objects and petty notions from our centers of mass production and communication.

I think we may have underestimated the power and velocity of the ugly and mediocre. We are facing so unprecedented a problem—with so many new patrons with no critical experience, and so much money to be made by appealing to their immaturity—that the school must try a new tack. While its purpose must still be to connect whatever is lively and humane today with the ideals of excellence man has painfully wrested from his history on earth, its tactic must include the conscious confrontation of the ugly and mediocre.

This process of confrontation should range across the entire spectrum of taste—food, clothing, furniture and design, buildings, streetscapes, anything and everything that man puts his mark on, anything and everything that goes to make up a total style of life. For in the ugliness that surrounds us in industrial America, we see the results of a half-civilized—i.e., partly dehumanized—process. In a cultural democracy the only way to purge the environment of its second-ratedness is to have enough people who care enough to demand the best.

In this land of simple-minded optimism it is hard to convince people that we may well be losing a never-to-be-refought battle with this mechanized ugliness. Consider this last ditch call from an “open space” group, less interested in landing on the moon than on having a place to stand for the 200 millions that will soon either inhabit or infest our mighty soiled continent.

Genetics may in time produce a race able to subsist solely and happily on concrete and steel, asphalt, plastic, chrome; content to breathe smog and fumes; asking only superhighways, superchargers, and fuel stations with juke boxes for its delight. The eventuality is not imminent. For health and a sense of well-being, people need frequent contact with nature. They will look for reality and meaning in rivers and clear streams, in the ebb and flow of the tides along clean shores, in a few trees and a patch of green among the towering structures of their cities.

This outside disorder, we must convince the new patrons of the industrial civilization, i.e., everyone, is a symbol of inner confusion. By forcing them to look, and read, and think, and write about this whole underworld of chaos, we may generate sufficient revulsion against the mess to make them intellectually and politically effective enough to tear down the “dark Satanic mills.”

If the public schools consistently demanded of their students an objective analysis of the qualities of life implicit in the gaudy hot dog stand and the near-food it often serves, in the insolent self-fear of the duck-tail and the black leather jacket, in the pipedreams the flashy car stands for, in the numbing monotony of row houses superficially individualized through salesmanship, in the squalor of most roadscapes outside our cities, in the incipient disaster of the mess around us, we could soon expect an upgrading throughout American life. I believe the physical ugliness around us is a psychological depressant, keeping us from aspiring to real greatness.

In fact, I think you can argue that much mediocrity in the mass media is accepted because so many people want to escape from the trash and litter of the physical world. The fact that nowhere in our schools have we tried to exorcise ugliness by confronting it boldly in the curriculum gives me hope. Were we to hit it head on, the non-humanities might not seem as invincible as they look today.

No comments: