Why Bother with the Humanities in a Time of Global Crisis?

Through Disease, Death and Climate Change, I Teach English. Fiddling While Rome Burns?

This guest blog by Dr. Deborah Bowen (English faculty, Redeemer University and Global Scholars Canada board member) is a December 2021 re-write of an opinion piece originally written for the print edition of Comment ten years earlier, in the fall of 2011. Though the contemporary context has changed, it seems daily more evident that the longer-term relevance of the argument has not. 

As I write this piece in Ontario, at the end of December 2021, the media outlets are full of attempts to make some kind of wry commentary about the past year, amidst the ever-evolving COVID pandemic and the growing evidence of material and economic chaos caused by climate change. Some look for silver linings: in the middle of it all, weren’t “the two Michaels” (Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig) released after being held for almost three years in jail in China, and brought back safely to Canada? Didn’t last month’s COP26 come up with some virtually worldwide agreements about accelerated action to counter climate change?  Didn’t the Canadian women’s soccer team win the World Cup? And haven’t we all become extraordinarily adept and creative at managing life by Zooming on every front? 

But many sound weary and dispirited. It’s not just that hospitals are filling up again; it’s that there are no longer enough healthy staff to look after the patients. We’re told that two doses of vaccine don’t provide adequate protection from the Omicron variant: everyone needs to get a booster ASAP. Even if flights to certain places are allowed, the planes get grounded when the airline crews are sick or in quarantine. As China imposes COVID lockdown on thirteen million residents, and a growing number of European countries are faced with runaway COVID infections despite all the vaccinations they’ve given out, there is a sense of inevitability about more sickness and more death. Meanwhile, are Ontario schools going to open back up in the first week of January, or will tens of thousands of working parents again have to find ways to negotiate online learning for their kids?        

What to do? Some analysts look primarily to scientific breakthroughs in immunology to stem the tide of COVID.  Others, while trying to increase the availability of vaccines and pouring aid into struggling countries in the global South, look also to the scientific possibilities for long-term drought control, and to international commitments from COP26 to be followed through. Social scientists look seriously at the mental health effects of COVID lockdowns on youth and vulnerable adults, and talk gloomily about the uptick in drug-related deaths as people try to find ways to cope with the pressures of the pandemic and the climate crisis. But no one doubts the crisis-ridden times. It’s clear that, even in countries where the warfare is not actual, there is viral, ideological or economic warfare going on. 

Teaching English in a Global Pandemic

So what am I doing, still teaching English? How and why, in the middle of a time of such crisis, am I expecting my students to respond to literature?

In times like these, I find myself returning to a piece composed in the first months of World War II by C.S Lewis.  In fact it was originally a sermon, delivered in the autumn of 1939 in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford. It was called “Learning in War-Time.” In it, Lewis addressed the students who had not gone off to war, but were still students, still meant to be reading and learning and thinking and writing, still “fiddling while Rome burns.” He argued that there is a bigger question behind any question about the justification for studying at such a time: every Christian who is in a university, he says, must ask him- or herself “how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or to hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology?

How it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or to hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology?

  • C. S. Lewis

In other words, it is “the permanent human situation” to live always under the shadow of life-and-death eternal issues, whether in wartime or no. And even with a consciousness of this precipitous situation, it is an inevitable part of human life to be involved in cultural activities—it is in our nature to search for knowledge and beauty even in the middle of crises and alarms. We can justify this search in such times only by engaging in it humbly and wholeheartedly; for the Christian, whatever times we live in, Christ’s call is to engage in both the noble cultural activities (“the work of a Beethoven”) and the humble everyday things (“the work of a charwoman”) always to God’s glory.  

For the Christian professor as much as the Christian student, this means accepting the studying life as a vocation from God, to be lived dutifully and with humility. Since “a cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside it or not,” the work of those who are called to what Lewis terms “the learned life” will be to offer the service of answering bad philosophy with good, and “muddy heathen mysticisms” with cool intellect. In particular, their gaining an intimate knowledge of the past will provide a foil to the fashions and assumptions of the present; this is the duty those teaching and studying in the universities are called to fulfil.

Lewis goes on to describe “three enemies” of the scholarly life that are particularly powerful in times of war, though they are always present in some form; and he offers three “mental exercises” that can serve as defences against them. 

The first enemy is excitement, or the inability to concentrate on the work at hand because of outside distractions—not only the business of war, but also the everyday problems of lovers’ quarrels, job-loss, illness. The best defence is the recognition that in fact “favourable conditions never come,” and thus we need to do the best we can against these ever-present rivals to our work, whatever it may be.

The second enemy is frustration, in particular the anxiety that we will not have time to finish whatever project we have begun. The defence Lewis offers is the recognition that “the present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received”; we need consciously to live and work in the present, and trust the future to God.

The third enemy that war raises up against “the life of learning” is fear, and particularly fear of death and pain. Lewis’s defence here is a bracing one. Since one hundred percent of us will die, we can say only that “War makes death real to us; and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality.” Such an awareness gives us a healthy perspective on finite human culture and its possibilities, and turns us again to divine realities as the true grounding for our lives.

Beyond Utilitarian Education

Thus Lewis’s essay. At my university we have for a number of years included it in the coursepack for our first-year core English courses, and we discuss it with each new group of students. Does it help them know how to respond wisely to new waves of COVID infection worldwide, or the devastating natural disasters caused by climate change? In a direct sense, probably not. 

But indirectly, I believe it does. Teachers and students who take in Lewis’s arguments will be more inclined to value their task beyond the utilitarian business of getting a degree to improve job prospects. They will not only be encouraged to recognize their vocation as a God-given service to others, but they will also recognize that the enemies of their work in the university are not unique to them—these are the enemies of all productive enterprise in this world. Moreover, they will have a rationale for the kind of reading and thinking which enables them to look beyond the immediate situation both to its causes and to analogous situations in the past; they will understand the importance of seeing how one’s worldview affects one’s conclusions—and how the dominant assumptions of a particular age affect the policies it enacts. 

Lots of this kind of work happens in humanities classrooms. Looking back over some essays and stories from my own recent teaching, I think of these examples, just a couple of handfuls of them among a myriad others: 

  • reading Rachel Carson’s powerful exposé of chemical pesticides, Silent Spring (1962), with students considering how to take a responsible approach to environmental issues; 
  • experiencing the humbling effect of James Rettie’s fable “But a Watch in the Night” (1948), which places the entire history of humankind in the last minute of a year-long movie documenting the development of the universe; 
  • reading Joy Kogawa’s novel Obasan (1981), which dramatizes the plight of Japanese-Canadian internees in WWII, with students who have never heard anything about this sad part of Canadian history before; 
  • reading Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), with its painfully beautiful look at the suffering of both blacks and whites in apartheid South Africa; 
  • turning to an ancient fable like “Echo and Narcissus,” or a classical Greek tragedy like Oedipus Rex, or the medieval morality play Everyman, with students for whom the resonance of the past in the present and for the future is barely yet on their radar; 
  • seeing non-specialist first-year students respond deeply to John Donne’s “Meditation 17,” written in a time of personal crisis during another epidemic, way back in the England of 1624 (“No man is an island, entire of itself”); 
  • helping these students discover Henri Nouwen’s essay “Adam’s Peace” (1988), about the unaccountable value of a severely handicapped life that brings peace to those around; 
  • savouring Graham Greene’s story “The Second Death” (1935), which undermines students’ previous expectations about the recipients of Jesus’ miraculous healings;
  • introducing Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart (1958), which brings to life the culture of a Nigerian tribe prior to the arrival of the White Man; 
  • presenting Rudyard Kipling’s now-so-embarrassing poem “The White Man’s Burden” (1899), which articulates the assumptions and struggles of an earlier Western moment in interacting with colonized cultures; 
  • reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness from that same year, which shows how the heart of darkness is to be found as much up the river Thames as up the river Congo, because it develops anywhere that the human heart is unrestrained by cultural mores; 
  • reading Wilfred Owen’s searing World War I poetry, which denounces the “old lie” that it is glorious to die for one’s country; 
  • doing a dramatic reading of T.S. Eliot’s liturgical play Murder in the Cathedral, which brings the violent 12th century death of Thomas à Becket into the present lives of a chorus of ordinary women in the Canterbury of 1935;
  • considering an essay by Wayne Booth, “Is There Any Knowledge that a Man Must Have?” (1967), which explores the assumptions about society and human nature behind various different models of education. 

“If the humanities can’t save us, they can surely and beautifully help us to see what salvation might truly involve.”

– Dr. Deborah Bowen

None of these pieces tells students what to think; all of them require careful reading, thoughtful contextualization, and considered response. None of these pieces is contemporary, and yet all have resonance for creative and hopeful contemporary citizenship. Surely this escape from the tyranny of the immediate is one of the key goods of education. We have learned over COVID to recognize that we are spatially interconnected worldwide, by geography, by economics, and by our very physical selves. But we still need to be reminded that we are also temporally interconnected, to the past, and therefore to the future, too.

In a culture of instant gratification and instant communication, young people in particular still need help to contextualize: to recognize that the world beyond their own immediate lives is real and relevant, not only on their own doorstep but also in other parts of the world, and in the past and future of their own civilization and those of others. Reading widely in the literatures of the past is not generally going to offer immediate practical solutions to present social problems. But this kind of reading is set fair to create a more thoughtful, sensitive, and articulate public sphere where awareness of past crises, their contexts, and the rhetoric around them will inform and broaden present response and encourage future creativity. If the humanities can’t save us, they can surely and beautifully help us to see what salvation might truly involve.

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