Monday, June 14, 2010

Brooks on The Big Shaggy

David Brooks argues for the continuing relevance of the humanities during times of economic downturn in the June 7, 2010, edition of The New York Times. Excerpts:
Studying the humanities improves your ability to read and write. No matter what you do in life, you will have a huge advantage if you can read a paragraph and discern its meaning (a rarer talent than you might suppose). ...

Studying the humanities will give you a familiarity with the language of emotion. ... Branding involves the location and arousal of affection, and you can't do it unless you are conversant in the language of romance.

Studying the humanities will give you a wealth of analogies. People think by comparison -- Iraq is either like Vietnam or Bosnia; your boss is like Narcissus or Solon. People who have a wealth of analogies in their minds can think more precisely than those with few analogies. If you go through college without reading Thucydides, Herodotus and Gibbon, you'll have been cheated out of a great repertoire of comparisons.

Finally, and most importantly, studying the humanities helps you befriend The Big Shaggy.
Read the whole thing. "What is The Big Shaggy?" my wife asked when I told her about the article. Brooks explains it as that mysterious internal creature that's "at work when a governor of South Carolina suddenly chucks it all for a love voyage south of the equator" and which inspires "the graceful bemusement the Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga showed when his perfect game slipped away." In other words, The Big Shaggy is that core of humanity that causes us to act in ways beautiful and bizarre, humble and horrifying. We all know it's there, and we all understand that it's unquantifiable, something that causes consternation in both the hard and soft sciences.

Ironically, though, The Big Shaggy is the bread and butter of philosophers, poets -- and genre-fiction authors. Perhaps especially genre fiction authors. Philosophers can be diverted with splitting the finest of hairs, poets with plumbing obscure notions of form and beauty. But the bards of battleaxes and laser beams and bad men with guns have never possessed much pretention, content to entertain their readers with outlandish tales and, in doing so, to draw them to the universal. None of us have ventured into Mordor or investigated murder most foul with a British lord whose middle name is Death. But we have faced down near-impossible odds or wrestled with matters of right and wrong. Though it may sail into the depths of space, the best genre fiction always leads us into a deeper, more unfathomable void: the human heart.

(Picture: CC 2008 by


pattinase (abbott) said...

A classical education will serve students well. A college education is not strictly job preparation. It's life preparation.

Loren Eaton said...

We are in agreement there, Patti. A lot of my work is done with financial professionals (e.g. accountants, bankers), and many of them are completely at a loss if I try to talk about anything other than their chosen fields.