By Lael Ewy, MFA, CPS
In some ways, the arts and humanities are the only endeavors in which “lived experience” has always been privileged. So it’s no wonder they’d be marginalized or actually argued against in an essentially technocratic age. But the arts and humanities are also what’s missing from the current “job oriented” educational realignment. These programs may prepare people for specific jobs (although that’s questionable), but they do not prepare people for work in a future in which the nature of specific jobs is constantly in flux.
That, however, is not why we should keep them around.
The argument against lived experience is also an argument for process over understanding, the idea that through research and evaluation processes alone we will be able to gather all of the data we need to make the decisions we need to make. This is ridiculous; without “real life” understanding of something, you can’t even create meaningful criteria for evaluation. In this sense, the movement away from lived experience is a power play by those in charge and their academic lackeys to replace what they cannot control, direct understanding, with what they can control, processes and policies—in terms Bakhtin might use, to replace the novel with the epic.
This is the same attitude that privileges supervisory structures and administrative processes over the work itself, the executive summary over the full report, the report over the voices from the field, the data over the principle—if, that is, the principle is even addressed at all. It’s the driving force behind dismissing all truly new thinking as “theoretical” and all real world information as “merely anecdotal.”
In this sense, both “street smarts” and “book larnin’” are being marginalized in favor of the kinds of evaluative processes that exist for the sake of controlling the terms in which ideas are discussed (again, if they’re discussed at all) and for the sake of reinforcing power by those who already have it. “And we have the numbers to show it,” or “researchers say” are statements that seem unassailable, and so few question where those numbers come from or the assumptions upon which their gathering and interpretation are based.
When we lose an art, we lose a way of understanding the world. Consider that for a minute. What other realm of human endeavor would allow itself to just die, to be told by wealthy and powerful and supremely ignorant and unimaginative people that it should simply go away, that there is no place in the future for how it knows and what it has discovered? Yet that is exactly what academic institutions and their rich donors are doing to the humanities and the arts.
When its critics level against the arts and humanities that they aren’t practical or don’t prepare people for “the real world” or “real jobs,” what these people are actually saying is “The only thing that’s important is what I believe I can immediately sell,” or “The only thing that has any value is what I believe the market wants.” Nobody ever asks these same people to back up what they’re saying or to defend the principles they’re using to make the claim. So the debate about the value of the arts and humanities isn’t even about practicality at all but about a very narrow view of what’s important to human beings, a view that almost all of us accept without question because it’s the view of rich and powerful people. When the actual pettiness and ignorance of their position is revealed, it’s easy, or at least easier, to see why it is wrong, yet because of the positions of those who share this view, we are still collectively afraid to confront it.
So we try to justify what we already do as preparing people for jobs, as having practical components. We repackage arts programs as graphic design, drop studio arts majors for career programs in video game design, shrink studies of poetry for badges in advanced tweeting. Some of this has merit: studying the arts and humanities will make you a better communicator, and it will improve your critical thinking skills. When you see, as I have, respected scientists making basic errors in logic, when you see tech company executives utterly unable to imagine the negative experiences of their users much less dystopias they are busy creating, when you see presidents unable to understand why calling immigrants “animals” is wrong, you can begin to see why these people might need a few more novels and poems and paintings in their lives.
But the value of the arts and humanities is inherent, and that’s not something those currently in power, who understand “value” only in the most basic of monetary terms, can even begin to understand.
When we look back at the great cultures of antiquity, we don’t marvel at their technology except in the most patronizing of ways, amazed at what such “primitive” people could accomplish. But when we read their literature, when we hear their stories, meditate on their holy writ, when we analyze their design and witness the world from the perspective of their visual art, we experience something that a patronizing attitude never could: recognition, an understanding of the experiences they, and we, live every day.
When we encounter their art, their literature, their philosophy, we recognize something that we can learn from: we learn more, and more deeply, about being human. And that is continually new.