August 23rd, 2013
At the turn of the last century French artist August Rodin celebrated the very act of thinking with this bronze sculpture. Little did he know just how iconic the pose would become, an elegant, literal representation of the contemplative life. The sculpture has been copied, imitated, and parodied for a century (my favourite is a Steve Colbert-headed truthiness version). To our jaded eyes it has achieved the order of kitsch, but anyone who went to high school still recognizes the original.
Rodin was living in an age much more disposed to the value of thinking than ours seems to be. He was French, after all, raised in a culture that boasted a Descartes, Diderot, Compte, and so on. There was nothing radical or startling about The Thinker. The piece is notable for its mastery of bronze, its appreciation of the male form with its taut muscular structure and well-proportioned geometry of the body. It was by no means a barn-burning statement or challenge to received wisdom. It was in itself about wisdom.
At the risk of sounding cynical it is hard to believe that any such comparable statement of the value of the very act of thinking could emerge in our own time. 21st century sculpture is by turns extremely abstract or informed by new technologies. Figural sculpture is often an expression of the tortured, not the calm, life of the mind. Things change, sure. Rodin and his cohort were living in a pre-tech time, with fewer distractions and far fewer pressures on the body. Who’s got time to think anymore, anyway?
But have we actually given up on the value of thinking?
In the last month or so, during the usual sleepy summer diversions, news has been pretty steadily circulating about the closing down of arts and humanities programs all over Canada and the USA. This week the University of Alberta announced it was moving to close 20 such programs, including music and language majors. At Mount Royal University down the road in Calgary theatre-arts and journalism programs have been eliminated. To my knowledge, these and other targeted arts programs are fading without so much as a whisper, let alone a bang. The rationale for all of these cuts is, of course, economic. Classes are small, enrolment is thin, and so it is easy to justify their elimination. Courses in the humanities have always been opportunities for thinking through and about problems, not necessarily solving them. And, to be sure, they have never promised to lead directly or obviously to a vocation. This is the rub. Vocationalism dominates university culture now, and while I do think we have an obligation to be honest and responsible to our students about the job market, we need to balance that against providing a space and time for the contemplative ideal.
Writing in the New Republic this week, Christina H. Paxton, President of Brown University, tries to make an “economic case for the humanities.” She joins several other leading administrators and academics who have recently taken a shot at defending the humanities. Her essay is a variation on a common theme: we need people trained in the humanities because a progressive civilization depends on it. She cites the great intellectuals and inventors who came up through a humanities education, and underscores the importance of understanding the world in all of its complexity. Knowing a lot about Latin America is important in view of the changing nature of that region, and so closing down language departments is a step backwards.
Notwithstanding some of the ways she links education to outcomes, I like the way Paxton actually avoids making an economic case for the humanities and instead insists on the value of thinking, of taking one’s time to be educated without clear or measurable results. Too many defences of the humanities incline towards arguments based on their practical or applied value—you know, like making the world more democratic. Really?
Maybe it’s time we stopped trying so hard to say that a humanities education leads to this and that career or this and that utilitarian or lofty purpose. Instead, let’s stress the value of thinking—just thinking, for its own sake.