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August 2007 Archives

August 7, 2007


When I was a boy growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, I used to haunt W. K. Stewart's bookstore on Fourth Street. I still remember its distinctive smell, the aroma of good paper and polished wood. I still see those rolls of brown wrapping paper and hear the crisp shearing sound as sheet after sheet would tear along the black blade poised above the roll.

Most of all I remember the books--Great Illustrated Classics, Modern Library Giants, the Everyman series, and, best of all, Scribner editions embellished by N. C. Wyeth. The long, narrow store was a cornucopia of books. They climbed the high walls and meandered on to balconies. Leaning over those balcony railings, I seemed to be peering down into a maelstrom of learning and imagination.

Bookstores aren't quite the same anymore. It isn't that metal shelves have replaced the wood or that slick plastic bags have beaten out brown paper. The smell is different, more antiseptic, and the books are different, too. The lower ceilings and lower shelves bespeak a lower reason for existence.

As one enters the typical chain bookstore these days, the order of procession is painfully familiar. On your right clamor the best sellers, on your left the bargain remainders or beefcake calendars. Behind them, the computer-related manuals herald the arrival of cooking, gardening, auto repair, and get-rich-in-real-estate. Like icons in little niches, the classics in paperback, now consigned to flashy covers, look on the hubbub with an air of mournful painted piety. Philosophy, relegated to a corner spot near the floor, has been neatly condensed into a couple of titles, perhaps Plato's Dialogues and Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

"The worst thing about new books," said Joseph Joubert, "is that they keep us from reading the old ones." I wonder if our collective memory is not becoming shorter as we spurn the rich strangeness of the old for the glossy familiarity of the new. I wonder if standardization, monotony, and vacuity are good for the human spirit.

I am not particularly drawn to retail bookstores these days. They seem to expect less of me and less of themselves. There are no sounds to delight, no heights from which to peer, no scents to captivate the mind.

August 8, 2007

The Humanities in Public Life

Nearly 25 years ago, William J. Bennett, then chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal (31 December 1982) in which he described the humanities as "shattered." They lay in ruins, he wrote, because relativistic thinking had eroded the consensus on which they were based.

Such a gloomy pronouncement failed, I think, to take into account the difference between the humanities in academia and the humanities in public life. Whatever the state of humanistic learning at the university, the humanities in everyday life are alive and well. They prosper simply because they make life more tolerable by enriching our inner lives.

The term "humanities" is too often bogged down in academic definitions. Historically, it has referred to the study of classical languages and literature. More recently, the humanities have become, in Bennett's words, "philosophy, history, literature and so on." But in reality, much as language is the dress of thought, these curricular subjects are but manifestations of the invisible.

The humanities exist in three dimensions: the affective, the ethical, and the contextual. The business of the humanities in public life is to promote taste and sensibility, to guide the formation of good judgment, and to illuminate life by providing illustration and precedent. The role of the humanities is to delight and challenge us as we reach for our full potential as human beings.

By this standard, the humanities are flourishing. In the best film, television, fiction, and non-fiction, we find appeals to the imagination, appeals to human dignity, appeals to moral indignation, and appeals to the need for perspective, for looking back, for reconsidering the past. The humanities are word-centered, but those words may be written or spoken. They may be read silently or listened to, read aloud or interpreted. Today, those words are generally accompanied by images that demand our attention and that shape or reinforce their meaning.

Fortunately or unfortunately, people do do not clearly and consistently associate the word "humanities" with those moments that add to the enjoyment of life and leisure. They yet are unaware that the experiences they have come to treasure are not essentially technological or scientific but humane. Technology provides the medium, the humanities provide the message.

The challenge, therefore, is not to defend the humanities but to illustrate them, not to bewail their decline but to demonstrate their presence, not to indict their misuse but to propagate their power. The humanities teach us that while there are few absolute certitudes in life, yet there are many certainties. And one of those certainties is this: to promote creativity, taste, tolerance, integrity, insight, and wisdom is a happy task, and one that cannot help but succeed.

August 9, 2007

Learning Other Languages

The Bible is full of interesting stories. One begins in Daniel 1:3-5 where the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar has just captured Jerusalem. First he plunders the city and then he issues a command. He orders that a group of young, intelligent Jewish noblemen be taken off to Babylon (today's Iraq) for one express purpose: to learn the language and the literature of the Babylonians.

Nebuchadnezzar took Daniel and his friends to Babylon because he wanted the Jews to know their conquerors. Thousands of years ago, this king understood a fundamental principle--it is impossible to understand or to penetrate a culture without learning the language of that culture. Language is the purest expression of a people's culture, the key that can open all the other cultural doors.

It is equally noteworthy that, although handpicked for their ability to learn, the young Jewish nobles were still required to study the language full-time for three years before entering the king's service. The ancient Babylonians knew that even for the best minds under the best conditions, language learning was a long and demanding task.

We don't know the methods those Babylonians used to teach their language and literature. But it is clear they taught all four skills: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. We don't know how fluent Daniel eventually became in his second language, but I personally imagine he was rather like Henry Kissinger--an eloquent speaker and writer, yet one who always had a slight yet distinctly foreign accent.

Assuming the American educational system is only half as efficient and intensive as that in ancient Babylon, American children should study a foreign language for an uninterrupted six years, beginning in the seventh (or preferably sixth) grade. Small schools in small towns should at the least require Spanish, since even they will be able to find Spanish teachers readily. Those in larger cities and those in magnet schools should have a wider range of choices, including Arabic, Chinese, and Russian.

I am convinced that only when Americans as a whole become more sophisticated in their knowledge of other countries, languages, and cultures will American foreign policy begin to avoid the catastrophic errors into which it so clumsily falls. Like Daniel, young Americans need to be trained for leadership in a diverse world. They need to understand their enemies as well as their friends, and understanding, Nebuchadnezzar knew, begins with learning language and literature.

About August 2007

This page contains all entries posted to Trite but True in August 2007. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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