October 14, 2008

The humanities ultimately are formative, not informative

The Culture We Deserve
from Thoughts, Books, and Philosophy by jhbowden

Barzun asserted that art and culture do not belong in a university, in the sense that the university is not their natural home. Great art is meant to be fun. The words amateur and dilettante, which have been turned into words of contempt, in their original sense meant “lover” and “seeker of delight.” Before 1850, after all, there weren’t any subjects and courses to instruct a lover of the arts. Few even believed the arts should be studied in the spirit of the sciences. Rather than methods and theories, the arts presuppose what Pascal called esprit de finesse, an intuitive understanding that seizes upon the character of its object as a whole...

A history, Barzun argued, is a piece of writing meant to be read. History, by showing the heroic side in man side by side with the vile, exercises our imagination and furnishes it. A good history shows the movers and shakers because if we delete them, the story is missing from the history. Too often an enterprising historian will try to make a name for himself by imposing an original idea upon events, a single cause. However, the presence or absence of particular individuals, along with sheer contingencies, both make a difference to the outcome of events; Barzun warned us not to miss the motive power nor the accidents interwoven in the passage of time. History is a product of acts of intelligence, will, and self-interest; things like the Colt revolver and barbed wire simply do not appear out of the ether.

History extends our experience by building an intuition of what is likely and what is important. After all, the humanities ultimately are formative, not informative; they organize our minds and make us attentive to the world. Relativist in the true sense of the word, the humanities link and relate the human soul to the rest of existence. The humanities broaden our horizons by giving us a taste of the philosophic atmosphere and historical perspective. As William James roughly described it, a liberal education allows us to know a good man when we see him; it is not only important for man to have skill, but to be a judge of skill, particularly of other men. Jacques Barzun, The Culture We Deserve (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1989)

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