Reading: Three Books on the Arts and Humanities

Before I was even contemplating becoming Catholic, I already subscribed to the very Catholic idea that community is central to human nature. The Catholic Catechism states in its “Part III: Life in Christ”:

In keeping with the social nature of man, the good of each individual is necessarily related to the common good, which in turn can be defined only in reference to the human person:

Do not live entirely isolated, having retreated into yourselves, as if you were already justified, but gather instead to seek the common good together.

By common good is to be understood “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.” The common good concerns the life of all. It calls for prudence from each, and even more from those who exercise the office of authority.

Being isolated, lonely or segregated is not appealing to human beings. We naturally seek out other people – often people we perceive to be like ourselves – and when gathered into any kind of numbers, we organize ourselves into a civilization, with its own peculiar norms and modus operandi to meet the needs of the partakers, i.e. a community.

I believe very strongly in community and in the idea that cooperation is better than selfishness. Because I’m a socially conscious educator in a public school whose works cross the interdisciplinary lines between the arts and the humanities, I apply those beliefs daily. The studies of the arts and of the humanities couldn’t be any more tied to the common good; they both require intense levels of cooperation to function, and when they function well, the common good is enhanced. Put simply, the arts & humanities improve our lives.

If I were going to suggest three books to read about these subjects of the arts & humanities, they would all be works that are focused on community, cooperation and common understanding: Cultural Democracy by James Bau Graves, Not for Profit by Martha C. Nussbaum, and Multiculturalism: A Critical Reader, edited by David Theo Goldberg.

Cultural DemocracyIn Cultural Democracy: Arts, Community & the Public Purpose, published in 2005, James Bau Graves elucidates his ideas about his subtitle, “The Arts, Community & the Public Purpose,” beginning with this question: “What does your community need to keep its culture vital and meaningful?” It’s a tough one, which forces use to give real thought to our assumptions. Many, many people lament the loss of cultural features they regard as meaningful, but not many of people do anything about it. Graves does. I first heard James Bau Graves on the WFMT’s “Critical Thinking and Critic’s Choice” podcast and was instantly enthralled by his ideas. I bought and read Cultural Democracy soon after. It has become one of my favorites.

After a weighty introduction, during which he reminds his readers of things like “Culture isn’t something you can get. You’ve already got it,” Graves’ next chapter is titled “Communion.” About midway through that chapter, he writes,

Voluntary communities form around professional and lifestyle choices. [. . .] Everyone is flagrantly multicommunal and so must make these choices continually. (31-32)

In our busy modern lives, we don’t really have a choice about being “multicommunal.” We’ve got to work together to make our communities work, and since communities are the basis of culture, everything we value is riding on cooperation. Later in Cultural Democracy, Graves discusses such topics as “Tradition and Innovation,” “Mediation,” and “Globalization and Localization,” in order to examine the difficult subjects such as corporate influences on our lives, the massive commercialization of the arts, and the role of leaders in eliciting public participation. But the most important chapter to me is “Education,” where Graves elaborates the ways that the arts are enlightening, transformative, progressive . . . and neglected and underfunded in a testing-obsessed world:

Unlike math or science, points out Elliot Eisner of Stanford University, “the arts teach children that problems can have more than one solution and that questions can have more than one answer. If they do anything, the arts embrace diversity of outcome.” (132)

In his final chapter, “Revolution,” Graves laments the loss of so many communities due to changes in the modern political/cultural climate, but he doesn’t relinquish hope: “Cultural democracy touches everything: it is the social agenda” (206). Fundamentally, we – through our daily lives and our political decisions – have to keep the vitality in the cultures that we value.

not for profitCarrying over that theme of democracy, Martha C. Nussbaum’s 2010 book Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities begins with a description of “The Silent Crisis.” Nussbaum’s perception of the problems is far ominous than Graves’. According to her first chapter, modern educational, social and political policy, e.g. No Child Left Behind and its frenzy of standardized testing, are de-emphasizing critical thinking, resulting potentially in masses of homogeneous automatons whose only purpose is economic success. Beyond its Orwellian overtones, why is this a problem? Because we not only live in a thriving and powerful economy where education has value in the workplace, we also live in a vibrant democracy where citizens must make informed decisions about our leadership often. Without an electorate capable of critical thought, our national democracy, Nussbaum asserts, is in jeopardy.

In Not for Profit, Nussbaum flings her widely range of knowledge in every direction, making constant connections between a variety of ideological stances. The chapters include supporting evidence from such disparate sources as Rabindranath Tagore, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, US Dept. of Education reports, Where the Wild Things Are, and Socrates. Yet, all of it pushes toward the importance of keeping the study of the humanities in our educational system, so that we can educate generations of human beings who believe in the value of society, rather than churning out generations of worker-bees who believe only in their consumer goods. In her sixth chapter, “Cultivating Imagination,” she writes,

So we need to cultivate students’ “inner eyes,” and this means carefully crafted instruction in the arts and humanities – appropriate to the child’s age and development level – that will bring students in contact with issues of race, gender, ethnicitiy and cross-cultural experience and understanding. (108)

This message – that diversity, equity and understanding are essential to democracy – is a somewhat radical idea today, in the conservative vs. liberal tug-of war— call it the “culture war,” if you want to. We hear daily political messages that uniformity of thought and ideal are what we want. We hear pundits and politicians offer us either/or paradigms. Nussbaum refutes those dichotomies articulately. What we really need is to live together peacefully and think critically about the ideas that are proposed, and our education – rich in the humanities – must support that.

multiculturalism goldbergFinally, Multiculturalism: A Critical Reader edited by David Theo Goldberg is harder to summarize, because it is an anthology. First published twenty years ago, in 1994, this book came out when I was an undergraduate studying literature at small branch-campus in the Deep South, at a time in the mid- to late 1990s when a new kind of post-Civil Rights America was emerging.

In his Introduction, Goldberg writes: “To speak a new language, so the insistence goes, one has to make it comprehensible to those whose terms of references are nothing but the old” (11). I remember the 1990s as a time when old suppositions were shifting, when political correctness was making old terminologies no longer acceptable, when a “new language” was developing. The introduction continues on as a wordy, very heady primer on identity, difference, and cultural hegemony, ending with a proposal that the university is the prime real estate for forging a new world order.

Personally, among the nineteen essays in Multiculturalism, ones I have found myself referring to most often in my own work are: “The Politics of Recognition” by Charles Taylor, “Diversity’s Diversity” by Judith Stiehm, “Essentialism and the Complexities of Racial Identity” by Michael Eric Dyson, and “Contested Histories: Eurocentrism, Multiculturalism, and the Media” by Robert Stam and Ella Shohat. These four provide multi-faceted views of what respect, honesty, fairness and equality mean. All of the essays in the anthology challenge common perceptions, and even question the questions. For example, Dyson’s essay acknowledges the difficulty of defining the African-American experience in summative terms and presents the dilemma who should participate in the discussion:

Under contemporary conditions of African-American diaspora, exile and differentiation, attempting to emulate such racial privacy and secrecy is clearly detrimental. When it is secret and closed, cultural criticism threatens to become elitist and antidemocratic. Making criticism public encourages the widest possible participation of a diverse audience of political interlocutors. (226)

I decided to include the difficult-to-summarize Multiculturalism anthology in this short “Three Books” entry about the arts & humanities, because in America we have to be able to live with people who are unlike ourselves. In the public school where I teach, where we study the arts together, difference is one of our daily realities—thus, we are educated by difference and experiencing it makes us better people. All learning doesn’t necessarily occur within the old-school assumption: one-way, from teacher to students. Any good teacher must also be a life-long learner.

As far back as historical records go, we know that people have always organized themselves into communities, whether into towns that stayed put or caravans that moved along, and we have always produced art objects, whether pragmatic pottery or signifying alphabets. There is no denying that human beings are both communal and creative. Not only my Catholic faith, but also my education in the humanities and my common sense tell me that all human life and its many expressions have value— even those lives that some of us don’t (or refuse to) understand.

The arts and humanities may be hard for standardized-test makers to work into their fold, but we don’t run our educate systems to benefit test makers. We maintain our education systems to benefit our culture. If the test makers can’t get on board with that goal, they need to admit that and get out of the way. The arts and humanities are too big and too complex for multiple choice questions. So are most people.

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