The “disciplines overboard!” distress call has gone out for the humanities.
This call has been much amplified by a recent publication from the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, created by the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Tracking a declining enrollment in humanities courses and a reduced number of humanities majors, this report has triggered a flood of commentary. The study of literature, history, philosophy, art and music seems to be sinking beneath a heavy freight of obituaries, eulogies, valedictories and memorials.
Throw out the lifeline: Human self-knowledge is sinking away!
Deploying that lifeline presents a challenge or two, as a visit to the website of the Academy’s Commission on the Humanities shows. The website condenses the commission’s message into a film, “The Heart of the Matter,” in which good-hearted people look earnestly into the camera and speak in support of the humanities. Some of these people are public figures, like George Lucas, John Lithgow, Yo-Yo Ma, David Brooks, Ken Burns. Others are accomplished scholars. All of them believe in the humanities to the core of their souls.
And yet these celebrities and scholars are poorly served by the folks who produced this well-intentioned film. The filmmakers show a preference for a style of oratory that celebrates the ponderous and pompous. Speaking in platitudes, the talking heads have evidently been instructed not to smile and never to laugh. They have followed this instruction very scrupulously.
When “The Heart of the Matter” finally plods to its ending, you will know one thing about the humanities: They are very serious and very solemn, operating as a well-designed boredom delivery system.
Watching the film led me to ask for a consultation with my Center of the American West co-workers, all of whom are younger than I. As we watched the film together, it settled into its place in the genre of cinema known as “unintended comedy.”
Our merriment crested when one of the authorities told us that the humanities functioned as “medicine” by “taking the pulse of this patient we call the United States of America.” This analogy is certainly thought-provoking and image-inspiring. Might we, a viewer wonders, send the humanities off, with a blood-pressure cuff, to apply this diagnostic “medicine” to “the patient we call Congress”?
My Center of the American West focus group concluded that this film stands no chance of engaging and energizing young people, and it will not change the tide of national opinion. What to do?
With the authority vested in me by years of satisfying, often joyful work in the humanities, I now call upon Jon Stewart, Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, Trey Parker and Matt Stone to form the leadership team for a new commission, charged with making a film that captures the great power of the humanities to unleash creativity, spirit, delight and wit.
And I offer a list of comedians admired by my co-workers in the hopes that, in contrast to the Academy’s venerable cast, this new film might include speakers beloved by the young: Aziz Ansari, Lewis Black, Louis C. K., Steve Carell, Jimmy Fallon, Will Ferrell, Neil Patrick Harris, Seth MacFarlane, Mindy Kaling, Demetri Martin, Seth Meyers, John Oliver, Jim Parsons, John C. Reilly, Seth Rogen, Kevin Smith, George Takei and Kristin Wiig.
In a particularly glum segment of “The Heart of the Matter,” the talking heads chant their way through terse predictions of a grim future: “No humanities. No meaning.” “No humanities. No fulfillment in life.”
Our newly created commission, representing the American Academy of Wit, will steer by a more promising slogan: No humor. No humility. No humanities.