“I’m always embarrassed when people say that I’m courageous. Soldiers are courageous. Policemen are courageous. Firemen are courageous. I just have a thick hide and disregard what silly people say.” Thomas Sowell
Well. Seems Joe Bob Briggs is torn these days. While repeatedly swearing his life long love for literature, he now claims it has no real-world value:
And eventually, if you study the data, which is what the Modern Language Association does, you have to reach the conclusion that studying English is good for…nothing. …
I’m racking my brain. I’m trying to come up with justifications. I’m trying to figure out some way this translates into “Yes, you are now prepared for life.” But alas, these modern students who thumb their noses at English are correct. It’s good for nothing. It has no practical value whatsoever.
Wait — NO practical value? C’mon, Joe!
Briggs laments that many of today’s college students aren’t even considering majoring in English, and are instead flocking to more “practical” courses of study. No doubt a degree in accounting or math is more marketable these days. But to dismiss the study of literature as having no value is wrong, wrong, wrong.
We could argue that learning how to interpret complex texts has significant value in a technological world. We could talk about the crucial role of reading in improving one’s social intelligence, making one more adept at working with others, or how reading helps one form a robust and informed worldview to make sense of one’s place in the world. Or how fiction in general, and science fiction in particular, opens one to spiritual insights that can make you a happier, and therefore more productive person.
But if you insist on focusing only on hard science, we’ve got you covered. Scientists have solid evidence on the link between reading and general problem solving skills. The act of reading itself builds “white matter” in the brain that boosts its ability to recognize patterns and imagine new scenarios. The importance of reading in nurturing general intelligence is beyond dispute:
But in today’s world, fluid intelligence and reading generally go hand in hand. In fact, the increased emphasis on critical reading and writing skills in schools may partly explain why students perform, on average, about 20 points higher on IQ tests than in the early 20th century. The so-called Flynn effect is named after James Flynn, a New Zealand professor who has devoted much of his career to studying the worldwide phenomena of increasing IQ scores.
Knowing technical details is important, but developing the ability to use technical knowledge in new and creative ways is critical.
I can’t wait to get my hands on Wendell Berry’s latest book, Wendell Berry: Port William Novels & Stories (The Civil War to World War II). Here’s an introduction to it and Berry’s other works, by none other than Nick Offerman:
He has garnered adoration and accolades for his poetry, his essays and his fiction, but in a general sense no distinction need be drawn between these genres. All of his writing thrives on the ground water of his common sense and his affection for his place on earth and the inhabitants of that place. In the eight decades and counting Mr. Berry has been paying attention, he has witnessed his species genuflecting to the modern fashion of keeping pace with the ever-increasing proliferation of consumer goods and services. By maintaining a lifestyle that eschews that sensibility by simply choosing not to go any faster than necessary, he has maintained a perspective rife with wisdom by which we can all prosper and thrill.
We can’t all be an exemplar of the agrarian lifestyle like Wendell Berry, who produces a staggering volume of literary work while managing his Kentucky farm. But there’s a great deal we can do to restore sanity and meaning in our lives. The disease Berry diagnoses is consumerism, by which he does NOT mean various efforts to ensure the safety and quality of goods, but the modern mindset that helplessness and rootlessness are virtues rather than shortcomings. In Berry’s words, “A mere consumer is by definition a dependent.” Madison Avenue sells pre-packaged identity, esteem, and meaning, and when expensive “stuff” fails to make us happy, the answer is to buy more.
How to be less dependent? Make your own food. Make your own music. Make your own furniture. And think before you buy more plastic yuck you don’t really need. And of course, we can inform ourselves about the condition we’re in, and Berry’s work is a great place to start. I’ve found his writings inspirational.
By the way, I had no idea Offerman was something of a Renaissance man. In addition to acting, he makes boats, furniture, and has written three books. He disdains labels and ideologies, and considers himself “a free-thinking American.” We could use a few more of those.
Journalist Gracy Olmstead examines modernism’s legacy of sterile efficiency and the anti-human spaces it spawned:
But in modernity … we chose to dispense with precedent and tradition. We decided to distrust the “spooky wisdom” of the past—whether it had to do with old-fashioned agrarianism or dense walkability—and instead start from scratch, inventing our own way of doing things. Thus, freeways cut through the core of our cities, severing neighborhoods and communities. Suburbs sprung up around cosmopolitan centers, fashioning their own car-centric rhythms and culture. Farmers, meanwhile, were told to “get big or get out,” to trade diversity and sustainability for homogeneity and profit. Small to midscale farms steadily lost land and resources to their larger, industrialized counterparts.
The “spooky wisdom” she writes about is a term borrowed from quantum theory. It refers to intuitive insights that work even though we can’t fully explain WHY they work. Olmstead offers examples from ancient cities and rural communities whose designs not only fulfilled profound human needs but have survived and thrived over long centuries. Her great-grandfather, she notes, resisted the efficient yet inhumane practice of “confined animal feeding” on his small farm because providing open pastures “made the animals happy and kept the land pretty.”
I’ve long believed that our longing for beauty rises from our deepest needs and provides crucial guidance in meeting those needs. Our yearning to interact and enjoy nature and other people has been pushed aside in favor of gratifying material wants. In the mad rush to get there faster and consume more and more, we’ve managed to sequester our bodies in polluting cars or in the shadows of towering buildings. And we wonder why we feel so isolated and small.
However, some hopeful currents are stirring, from the return to small, sustainable agriculture to walkable greenways in our cities. Nature tends to be self-correcting, and I believe the pain inflicted by modernism is a signal we as a species are finally responding to.
I recently wrote a guest post for Sue Vincent’s wonderful spiritual, art, and folklore site. My post focuses on a topic I find myself thinking about more and more:
Countless online and printed articles have wrestled with what has become the most troubling question of our age: What is happening to us?
The cascade of electrons and ink aimed at this question underscores our growing realization that many of the sources of order we once relied on, from governments to churches, are coming apart. Individuals are coming apart, too. Despite our material opulence and abundance of sexual choices, we’re depressed. People are increasingly alienated from each other, divorcing at record rates, and respond by insulating themselves in electronic diversions and pills. Many commentators have attempted explanations, but I think no one has attacked the question more directly and honestly than anthropologist Helen Fisher in this interview with Krista Tippett:
Ms. Tippett: Right. We don’t have those extended circles of people who know them.
Ms. Fisher: … Serial pair-bonding is probably basic to the human animal, series of partnerships. But what is really unusual, for me, is the loss of local community. We have extended communities — we have our internet friends; we’ve got our work friends; we’ve got our people who we exercise with; we’ve got people who we go to a poetry conference with — whatever it is. But we don’t have local community.
Read the rest at Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo.
There is no doubt in my mind that modern society traps its subjects in an unhealthy and unsuitable environment. That stark realization motivates many of my stories (see here and here, for example). The most disturbing symptom of how toxic our culture has become is the increasingly acerbic mutual distrust evident in current politics. Little wonder so many feel depressed, powerless, and alienated.
Rather than utilizing technology to better our lives, we let it rule us. Distracted by smart phones, buffeted by inescapable sensory overload, and hobbling our discourse in 140-character outbursts at each other, we’re incapable of understanding our own inner selves, much less that of others.
Fortunately, the tonic for the condition we find ourselves in is close at hand — if only we would use it, as this eye-opening piece in big think proclaims:
Research shows that reading not only helps with fluid intelligence, but with reading comprehension and emotional intelligence as well. You make smarter decisions about yourself and those around you.
All of these benefits require actually reading, which leads to the formation of a philosophy rather than the regurgitation of an agenda, so prevalent in reposts and online trolling. Recognizing the intentions of another human also plays a role in constructing an ideology. Novels are especially well-suited for this task. A 2011 study published in the Annual Review of Psychology found overlap in brain regions used to comprehend stories and networks dedicated to interactions with others.
The beauty of it all is that when you read, you gain more than just the knowledge contained in the text. The very act of reading builds “white matter” in the brain, thereby boosting the brain’s interconnectivity and ability to function more efficiently.
In the United States — yes, the United States — 1 out of 4 children grow up without learning to read. That’s intolerable. Want to do your part to make the world a better and happier place? Read, and do what you can to help others read.
And if you really get ambitious, and have the nerve to try it, write something beautiful.
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet had a happy ending. In Hamlet, Ophelia accidentally drowned. And when Lady Macbeth gazed upon her guilty hand, she cried, “Out, crimson spot!”
Doesn’t sound quite right, does it? But those are some of the edits Thomas Bowdler made to render Shakespeare less violent and less frightening. Bowdler’s 1818 The Family Shakespeare removed what Bowdler called “those words and expressions… which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.”
In fact, Bowdler’s work was appreciated in Victorian times, and poet Algernon Charles Swinburne credited Bowdler for making Shakespeare approachable for children. But today, the word “Bowdlerize” signifies the reworking of a piece to make it less offensive, but also weaker and less effective.
Before we start feeling superior to those stuffy old Victorians, we need to pay attention to a growing neo-Bowdler campaign to tone down text that could offend. Sadly, some publishers are resorting to “sensitivity readers” whose explicit job is to Bowdlerize manuscripts:
Before a book is published and released to the public, it’s passed through the hands (and eyes) of many people: an author’s friends and family, an agent and, of course, an editor.
These days, though, a book may get an additional check from an unusual source: a sensitivity reader, a person who, for a nominal fee, will scan the book for racist, sexist or otherwise offensive content. These readers give feedback based on self-ascribed areas of expertise such as “dealing with terminal illness,” “racial dynamics in Muslim communities within families” or “transgender issues.”
The Chicago Tribune story cites the case of author Veronica Roth, whose novel Carve the Mark was denounced “for its portrayal of chronic pain in its main character.”
That’s sad. It’s a rough-and-tumble world out there, and if you can’t handle viewpoints that challenge your sensibilities, you’re in for some rude shocks.
I see this as yet another symptom of a society that’s self-segregated itself into prickly, snarling little dens of conformity. Too many people see the world through a pre-fabricated lens and as a result, cannot cope with views from outside their cocoons. If all you know of the world comes from Fox News or Huffington Post, you feel you must condemn all who fail to uphold the One True Way.
Get away from that computer. Go outside. Talk to real people. At the very least, dare to consider ideas from outside your “Favorites” list.