[Humanist] 24.488 Kessler, "Humanities, Anyone?"

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun Nov 14 10:18:01 CET 2010

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 488.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sun, 14 Nov 2010 09:14:39 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: humanities, anyone?

[Posted on behalf of Jascha Kessler. --WM]



Communication and Knowledge, two terms commonly attributed to the finest 
of benefits bestowed by the World Wide Web, do not of themselves suggest 
what today troubles professors of the Humanities. Speaking of whom, 
reminds me of a cartoon I saw in 1954, , showing the usual nondescripts 
at a cocktail party.  One brisk, bow-tied fellow asks another, *Read any 
good books lately?”  The shabby, grizzled tieless and round-shouldered 
other replies, *Wrote one.” Further to that, when in the summer of 1947 
my 10 year-old kid brother paid me a visit at a resort hotel where I was 
a waiter that summer, I asked him what he had been reading.  “The 
Iliad,“ he answered.  And recited a passage.  “Good for you!” I 
exclaimed.  That honest child, abashed, giggled, *Well, no. CLASSIC 
COMICS, actually.”]

  Which digression at the outset leads me to the following observations. 
It’s loudly lamented our colleges are losing faith in, and (funding) 
support for, the Humanities. At the same time, people seem universally 
excited and entranced, deliriously engrossed by instant electronic 
communication and what they think is knowledge enhanced and ubiquitously 
available on their portable screens.  The scene today is almost like 
Caliban’s speech in Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST, wherein he wonderingly 
tells of music and voices unseen around him everywhere on that desert 
isle — Ariel‘s and kindred angelic benevolent beings.

I remind college students that what the WWW provides is mainly 
INFORMATION.  Well and good.  I am immensely grateful for the resources 
that can be called down with a click or two.    When I am at work 
writing or studying, I need but a ”keyword” to summon information I 
don’t clearly or exactly recall. Marvelous!  Wonderful! However, I read 
books in the several decades that formed my education.

The students I greet in my UCLA classes, bright, willing, and eager 
though they are, haven’t the foggiest.  I find they mostly, like my 
grandchildren, have not read and digested too many books, or even 
stories or poems or history’s tales.  To say the least.  They seem to 
have been informed on the fly.  The world they live in affords downloads 
of a million or more "songs."  It seems difficult to tell them one from 
another, as any shopper in a drugstore or supermarket knows.  Whereas at 
81,  I find that the music, for instance of a Schubert song I’ve heard 
now and then since my teens, offers notes and phrases I’d not heard 
before.  Let alone the newfound sense of a line or two in a sonnet of 
Shakespeare!  I see for instance in my seminar titled, WHAT A POEM SAYS, 
that our 18-20 year olds cannot hear or grasp a simple word, let alone a 
phrase, though they try to guess.  They suppose the sound and spelling 
constitutes the word. They speak, sweetly and modestly themselves, yet 
seem not to know what the speech of poetry is.  They understand what 
they hear as familiar merely as TV chatter; they can apprehend the 
announcements of politicians and statesmen; yet au fond they do not,or 
cannot comprehend them as anything more or less than communication or 

Personally, I am perpetually astonished by the simplest phrase, say in a 
poem such as I have gone over with them word by word: what it imports, 
what it contains of the writer's experience of the world in which it was 
uttered, and the history of that language's aura, so to say.  It is no 
wonder clerics sermonize weekly, expounding a sentence or phrase ancient 
and familiar, yet essentially mysterious though it contains a well of 
feelings and thoughts and facts of life.

That is what teaching in the "Humanities" means.  True, a college major 
in Humanities is but the first step into the possible and potential 
recognition of one's own being — or of one’s having been — in life 
itself.  I remind students that we do in fact see darkly, as in a 
mirror. That mirror is what Matthew Arnold once held up to show us what 
was the best thought and said ... and written by larger lives and souls 
than youth recognizes.  Or age, for that matter.  History may be tales 
of sound and fury, narratives written by victors and their historians, 
as the cynic says.  Nevertheless the records of thoughts in the subjects 
labeled  Humanities are not labile or friable, or passing; whereas the 
discoveries of scientific research are, necessarily, always altering, 
superseding, or abandoning what has been thought to be the case yesterday.

It is so difficult to convey what  a sentence of poetry says.  The kids 
seemed to think the other week, for instance, that they understood what 
Emily Dickinson said in the first lines of her poem, which run “Hope is 
the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul .... “  Just to get at 
what hope may be, what the word as spoken says, not “means,” took an 
hour.  As for the poem’s 12-lines, they gradually constitute themselves 
as an extraordinary artefact, uttered as it were sotto voce if uttered 
at all, not immediately to be comprehended; indeed in reflection it 
suggests itself as almost anti-Gospel.

At the other end of life: I have a acquaintance who travels frequently 
to international conferences, is a molecular biologist at UCLA 
commanding a top-flight lab maintained by today’s rich funding for a 
redhot field.  A modest man in his 60s, he has taken to asking what 
there is to do in those exotic venues where he does the panelists’ 
tango, having days of free time before, during and after sessions of 
science congress.  Lately he has become curious to learn something of 
the arts and architecture of those cultural capitals.  In short, he has 
not a clue regarding the Humanities. Surprised, he finds himself 
suddenly old enough — and eager — to begin to see and hear, perhaps to 
"experience" what the old poet Yeats called "monuments of unageing 
intellect."  Better late than never?  Late, or too late! to paraphrase 
an apothegm of William Blake’s.

Those “things” are what we profess who have been students of the 
Humanities wish to maintain.  Digitization of texts and images 
notwithstanding, though stored [safely?] and downloaded on request from 
the Great Cloud to be “experienced” virtually, are not events that will 
be melded into in our very marrow so to say.  Education requires their 
absorption over time.  For example, another cartoon recalled from 1954 
may illustrate what is supposed our profession.   A young fellow picks 
up a heavy valise labeled, say, HUMANITIES.  He carries it ten years; is 
drawn looking older in the next frame; in another 10 years older still, 
etc.  At last he is seen bearded,  bent, a broken-winded geezer sitting 
on that luggage ... unopened lifelong.  Caption: “The Professor as 
intellectual porter. Sardonic?  Yes.  Nevertheless it also describes the 
vast repository now filling with the 0s and 1s that represent whatever 
that remains of the past, nowadays called Knowledge, though more 
accurately termed Information.

Most of our university and college disciplines, larded with pelf and 
power, carry on their backs  what might be called The Old Man of the Sea 
— whole buildings stuffed with suites of administrative officials. They 
with their hugely-funded professional schools, Engineering, Medicine, 
Law, and Social Sciences like Psychology, tend to regard HUMANITIES as 
the leaden burden of a portmanteau not worth the effort to schlep along 
or trouble unpacking, sorting, and demonstrating its content of 
millennia-old lives to ignorant youth.  They would prefer our wide-eyed, 
wondering kids deafened by ear-buds to try to hum one or two of the 
millions of downloadable “songs” — how many of those tunes are 
electronically potted? than to try to THIMK! as that IBM office poster 
once had it.  To welter drowned in noise seems preferable to those who 
haven’t the wispiest notion of what any one “thing” might be, let alone 
the cost of learning what it is.

I suppose it comes down to this: There is a growing consensus by our 
budgeteers that confuses the HUMANITIES, whatever they may be, were, or 
could be, with vocational training, necessary though that is to earning 
a living.   Professional schools are essentially vocational.  The proper 
term for them is Technology. the origins of which begin with the first 
flaked knife or arrowhead, the spark that was struck from a flint to 
make the fire that cooked our raw foods.  Like Science, like Theology, 
the Humanities are no mere luxury to be discarded or trimmed away to
nothing because they cost a few bucks.

As for Technology, what engineering students are not taught is that 
after 10 years’ work at their speciality, they are usually obsoleted, 
the grant funds and investors’ cash having been directed elsewhere. For 
some the reward is being kicked upstairs to a manager’s.  Necessary, but
not what they put their best years into.  And even manager’s slot and 
desk, itself soon obsoleted.  Discarded, they come to resemble the 
broken ones whom Mr. O'Brien in 1984 sent off to a dingy cafe to play 
chess and drink Victory gin while awaiting the hour when a bullet would 
be blasted into their head from behind one ear.

Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Professor, Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney,
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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