About humanities. Why study it? Why teach it? Imagine one end of a ladder grounded on the earth and the other kind of waving in the sky. The bottom of the ladder, its end resting solidly on the ground, represents our connection to the earth, our ability to use our 5 senses to understand, translate, and interact with reality – to touch, to smell, to taste, to hear, and to see. As we move up the ladder of abstraction, we use words that are progressively more abstract. We’re talking here about the universe, the cosmos, things that we imagine or think about, but that we may not be able to validate with our senses. Both faith and science come into play here. We have theories and perhaps hope, but no solid answers.
This ladder of abstraction is actually Chomsky’s flying ladder. Borrowing from linguistics, let’s imagine Chomsky’s flying ladder, where both ends of the ladder are waving in the air and the ladder is constantly swaying back and forth. He came up with this metaphor to describe how we mentally create language, that delicate and continual balance between selecting words (diction) and choosing the order those words appear (syntax). How do I know what I’m going to say until I say it is rather true. From Chomsky’s point of view, the ladder sways back and forth between vocabulary (diction) and sentence structure (or word order, syntax).
It’s this ladder that I am climbing on when I talk about comparative religions and comparative cultures because this level of understanding is about understanding others from outside the culture and, at heart, it’s about understanding ourselves, our hopes and dreams. Bad things happen. We are violent and cruel, greedy and rapacious. And we are insulated from the worst of human behavior. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist nor does it mean we are freed from the responsibility of caring for others or working to change the world.
But, what does the study of humanities bring us? If we are in a circumstance where the life of the mind and soul are not nurtured, studying what a sense of aesthetics brought to other cultures can bring us hope, perhaps a direction, perhaps answers. Some of us will need to function closer to the bottom of the ladder of abstraction; some of us are drawn to the world of ideals, Plato’s “perfect forms”. Some of us love argument, the heat of debate; others prefer not to think about theories at all. But the humanities, that is truly humanism, the valuing of human experience, comes right from the Greeks, and helps us see what is good and beautiful. We may disagree about individual works of art or music. We may not even like dance or theater. We may be nonbelievers or devout. But some of the time, we are connected by a common appreciation of craft, or skill, or vision, or belief. Just that awareness of beauty in our lives can help us to cope with the reality of human existence. That every day is not a paradise. That we may confront the reality that life can be nasty, brutish and short. That exploitations exist. That wars happen and loved ones die. That sometimes others die that we may live and our children live in a world that hopefully always has room for the creative spirit. And for beauty. And for love in the largest possible sense that expands to include the entire human family. And that’s why I teach humanities.