Shakespeare’s Birthday and the Death of Humanities
Today is being recognized as the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. Harold Bloom helpfully suggests that our continued interest in Shakespeare has something to do with Shakespeare’s particular insight into what it means to be a human being: “Shakespeare not only invented the English language, but also created human nature as we know it today.”
This may also help explain the declining interest in Shakespeare in schools and among some of the more prominent ed reform movements — they don’t really care about teaching children about what it means to be a human being (otherwise known as “the humanities”). They increasingly view school as a mechanism for improving students’ economic prospects. And of course, training students to earn a living is an important component of school, but it is not the only or even most important element of education.
We aren’t gorillas, for whom zoo-keepers seek to optimize food, shelter, and longevity. Unlike gorillas we are inclined to reflect on what our existence means and try to give that existence purpose. Education should help guide us in doing that, not just train us to optimize food, shelter, and longevity by becoming the best future workers we can be. To reflect on what it means to be a human being we need to learn the humanities, including history, literature, and art.
Who is against the humanities? Few will say it out loud, but it is the dominant thrust in the 21st Century Skills movement, which is backed by the same people who gave us Common Core, with its shift away from literature to “informational texts.” When confronted with their manifest disinterest in the humanities, 21st Century Skills folks tend to respond that of course they are also for art, history, and all that stuff. But I challenge you to find where the humanities are in their “framework for 21st century learning.” See if you can find it in this graphic they say represents the “key elements of 21st century learning“:
Did you find the humanities? Is it in in “Life and Career Skills”? Does poetry fit in “Information, Media, and Technology Skills”? It can’t be in the “4Cs” or “3Rs” because history doesn’t start with an R or C. Anyone who thinks that alliteration constitutes a persuasive argument is likely to be an uncultured barbarian.
Remember that Microsoft and the Gates Foundation are important supporters of the “Partnership for 21st Century Skills.” And Bill Gates himself seems to have a low opinion of the art and humanities, or at least museums devoted to those subjects:
“Quoting from an argument advanced by moral philosopher Peter Singer, for instance, [Gates] questions why anyone would donate money to build a new wing for a museum rather than spend it on preventing illnesses that can lead to blindness. ‘The moral equivalent is, we’re going to take 1 per cent of the people who visit this [museum] and blind them,’ he says. ‘Are they willing, because it has the new wing, to take that risk? Hmm, maybe this blinding thing is slightly barbaric.’”
To which Terry Teachout, the Wall Street Journal’s art and theater critic, replied masterfully. Let me take the liberty of quoting him at length:
Where to start sifting through the nonsense? For openers, Mr. Gates would do well to find a better guru than Mr. Singer, whose greatest-good-for-the-greatest-number approach to moral philosophy (if you want to call it that) has led him to advocate, among other horrific things, what he politely calls “permissible infanticide.” It strikes me that Mr. Gates might possibly want to be a bit more careful about the intellectual company that he keeps.
More to the point, though, it seems clear to me that Mr. Gates thinks it immoral for rich people to give money to museums instead of medical projects, presumably those that have received the official Bill Gates Seal of Moral Approval. To be sure, he deserves full credit for putting his own money where his mouth is: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gives away some $4 billion a year, much of which is used to support health-related initiatives in developing countries, including a world-wide initiative to stamp out polio.
Good for him—but when it comes to art, he’s got it all wrong, and then some.
It almost embarrasses me to restate for Mr. Gates’s benefit what most civilized human beings already take to be self-evident, which is that art museums, like symphony orchestras and drama companies and dance troupes, make the world more beautiful, thereby making it a better place in which to live. Moreover, the voluntary contributions of rich people help to ensure the continued existence of these organizations, one of whose reasons for existing is to make it possible for people who aren’t rich to enjoy the miracle that is art. If it weren’t for museums, you wouldn’t get to see any of the paintings of Rembrandt and Monet and Jackson Pollock (and, yes, Francis Bacon). Instead they’d be hanging in homes whose owners might possibly deign to open their doors to the public once a year. Maybe.
As long as folks have little appreciation for the arts and humanities are dominating ed reform discussions, we are unlikely to make much progress in reviving those topics in schools. We may be celebrating Shakespeare’s birth, but what he stood for is dying.