Last week, David Brooks’ editorial “History for Dollars” caught my attention. Citing the rapid decline in participation, funding, and support for university-level humanities, Brooks sets out to, as he says, “throw another sandbag on the levee of those trying to resist this tide.”
He defends the humanities on a range of fronts:
- They improve your ability to read and write.
- They give you familiarity with the language of emotion.
- They give you a wealth of analogies.
- They help you to befriend what Brooks calls “The Big Shaggy.”
If the last item confused you as much as it did me, you’ll be pleased to know that Brooks goes on to explain:
You can see The Big Shaggy at work when a governor of South Carolina suddenly chucks it all for a love voyage south of the equator, or when a smart, philosophical congressman from Indiana risks everything for an in-office affair…
Those are the destructive sides of The Big Shaggy. But this tender beast is also responsible for the mysterious but fierce determination that drives Kobe Bryant, the graceful bemusement the Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga showed when his perfect game slipped away, the selfless courage soldiers in Afghanistan show when they risk death for buddies or a family they may never see again.
The observant person goes through life asking: Where did that come from? Why did he or she act that way? The answers are hard to come by because the behavior emanates from somewhere deep inside The Big Shaggy.
As images from Monsters, Inc., Bigfoot, and Star Wars vie for dominance, Brooks says the humanities, by representing the “upheavals of thought that emanate from the Big Shaggy” in art, story, etc., “help us understand these yearnings and also educate and mold them.”
Brooks stops there. To me, what is left is an uneasy impasse.
The first three reasons are predominantly utilitarian: the ability to read and write well, use analogies, and market to the emotions produces more effective employees. I can agree, but, like Brooks, find those reasons incomplete. The fourth, however, “The Big Shaggy,” gestures toward a study of humanity itself, but falls short of answering, “To what end?”
Although the concepts are difficult to define, and although they need to be unpacked and handled with caution, I think it is impossible to evaluate the humanities without eventually confronting another set of terms: “Truth” and “Beauty.”
For catchy nomenclature, however, “Big Shaggy” wins hands down.