In Defense of Humanities. Or is it?

I came across this interesting article about how the fact that arts and humanities students land up serving coffees should really be seen as a failure of our society and economy to value their skills well. It also offers some prescriptions for rectifying the situation.

The case made in the article is that the arts and humanities offer us guidelines for how to live our lives, and in that sense, may be thought of as a replacement for religions. For instance, literature teaches us how to deal with life and death, and music teaches us how to deal with love and relationships. I am reminded of this wonderful scene from Dead Poets Society where Prof John Keating (played by Robin Williams) makes essentially the same point, but more eloquently.

If we accept that the works of arts and literature are valuable, then how do we explain the unemployment and underemployment of the graduates who have spent years analyzing and mastering them? One diagnosis is that the economy does not value this pursuit as highly as it should; i.e. it is a case of market failure. Another possibility is that the students are not taught how to transfer their knowledge of the works and the themes laid out therein to the commercial realities of the economy. In either case, what is warranted is a redesign of the curriculum, and possibly even a reorganization of the schools and departments, to emphasize both the potential value of these pursuits and how to unleash it. An interesting excerpt from the original article:

One would still study novels, histories, plays, psychoanalysis and paintings, but one would do so for explicitly therapeutic ends. So Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary would be assigned in a course on ‘How to manage the tensions of marriage’ instead of belonging in a course on ‘Trends in nineteenth-century fiction’, just as the works of Epicurus and Seneca would appear in a course on ‘How to Die’ rather than in one on ‘Hellenistic philosophy’.

That was a refreshing perspective on this dilemma. The question that is left unanswered, however, is how the insights from these works can be brought into the mainstream consciousness. How they can be “commercialized”, if you will. Should we expect to see legions of arts school graduates write self-help books?
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Unknown, Unknowable and the All-knowing

I’m sure you’re familiar with the sobering, yet inspirational words of Carl Sagan about the simultaneous significance and insignificance of the pale blue dot we call home. I was somewhat surprised to see this excerpt from Pascal’s Pensées, in which he seems to be echoing a similar emotion from centuries ago.

Let man contemplate Nature in its entirety, high and majestic; let him expand his gaze from the lowly objects which surround him. Let him look on this blazing light, placed like an eternal lamp in order to light up the universe; let him see that this earth is but a point compared to the vast circle which this star describes and let him marvel at the fact that this vast orbit itself is merely a tiny point compared to the stars which roll through the firmament.

But if our gaze stops there, let the imagination pass beyond this point; it will grow tired of conceiving of things before nature tires of producing them. The entire visible world is only an imperceptible speck in the ample bosom of nature. No idea can come close to imagining it. We might inflate our concepts to the most unimaginable expanses: we only produce atoms in relation to the reality of things. Nature is an infinite sphere in which the center is everywhere, the circumference is nowhere. Finally, it is the greatest sensible mark of God’s omnipotence, that our imagination loses itself in that thought.

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Reddit Gets Drawn

Here’s a beautiful album from this Reddit thread, made up of photos of Redditors and drawings of them by other Redditors. It’s amazing how a drawing can sometimes capture the essence of a person or emotion better than a photograph, by embellishing certain aspects: hyper-realism?

Take this drawing, for instance. Why do the eyes haunt me so? Why is it even more melancholy than the original photograph?