the rule of beauty

Recently, Martha Nell Smith was awarded the Distinguished Scholar-Teacher Award by the University of Maryland, where she teaches. At the second of the above links you’ll find a video of her lecture, given on the occasion of this award, “The Humanities Are Not a Luxury.” In the wake of SUNY Albany’s astonishing decision to cut some key programs—French, classics, Russian, Italian and theatre—Smith talks with humor and a stable sort of passion about the humanities as an essential, indispensable part of what we do and are. Here are some of the things that she says:

There is no frigate, no bus, no plane, no space ship, no car, no train—none of these is like a book, like a song, like an operatic voice, like a painting, like a sculpture, like a drama. To help us imagine other lands and cultures, to help us cultivate that kind of compassion and empathy required for democracy, for practicing equality as a fundamental value, instead of the more primitive ‘better than’.

And also:

We should remind our administrators that the kind of education that enabled broad access to highest quality instruction and research, and made these United States a world leader—that kind of education can never be a gated community. And it must be worldly, reaching beyond any nation-state. Healthy, too, are reminders that business management is really not the best metaphor for knowledge workers. As was noted in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a better metaphor for knowledge workers is that of gardener. We work in fields. We cultivate.

What I’ve been pointing out is that unless you’re at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values. You don’t know the metaphor and its strength, and its weakness. You don’t know how far you may expect to ride it, and when it may break down with you. You are not safe in science, and you are not safe in history, unless you are at home with the metaphor.

Smith rejects the rhetoric of a crisis in the humanities, a phrase often uttered. For more on the state of the humanities, see Stanley Fish’s recent NYTimes opinion pieces: “The Crisis of the Humanities Officially Arrives” and its sequel, “Crisis of the Humanities II.” I find it more than a little odd that not once does Fish mention digital endeavors of any kind, but can’t say I’m surprised. He didn’t mention them two years ago when asking whether the humanities would save us, either. I don’t subscribe to Fish’s opinions, but the articles and comments on them are thought provoking. Martha Nell Smith’s lecture, on the other hand, I heartily endorse. It’s well worth the hour and ten minutes it’ll take to watch the video.

2 Responses to “the rule of beauty”

  1. m. Says:

    Interestingly, I just had a conversation where I couldn’t think of the word humanities and referred to it as “studying works created by people.”

    Thank you for these links! I’ll be reading them with pleasure and interest.

  2. Andromeda Says:

    A few weeks ago, I would have said the Albany decision was astonishing, but last week I did not have the bar set properly. The Browne Report is astonishing. Key line, particularly from the POV of my Oxford-degreed, UK citizen Byzantinist/DH friend: “The government to be given scope to withdraw public funding from all but “priority” subjects, with teaching funding for the arts and humanities likely to be axed.”


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