By: David Bentley, English professor
A year before he died, Charles Darwin wrote with regret that he seemed to have become “a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts.” Attributing his sorry state to the lack of poetry and music in his life, he went on to give the probable consequences of their absence as a “loss of happiness,” injury to “the intellect,” and, through an “enfeebling [of] the emotional part of our nature,” damage to our “moral character.”
His words should be heeded today by anyone who encourages or permits students to neglect the arts and humanities and to concentrate single-mindedly on the so-called STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and medicine.
All of us who teach in the arts and humanities have stories about the sometimes life-changing intellectual, emotional and moral impact on students of what we study. After nearly forty years of teaching at Western University, I have a great many. Four years ago there was the senior medical science student in my Enriched Introduction to English Literature course who, after having completed her final research essay, decided to write on another of the assigned topics – “The Nature and Consequences of Choice in John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces” – because she realized how important it would be in her career as a physician. Year after year, students have told me that studying a particular work or a particular writer has been a “life lesson.” My field is literature, but I know of many instances where the “life lesson” has been learned in philosophy, art history, comparative literature and elsewhere in the arts and humanities.
Every student enrolled in a course in the arts and humanities is an intellectual and imaginative voyager, travelling to places near and far in time and space and entering through the power of empathy into the thoughts and feelings, attitudes and assumptions of people of different perspectives and cultures. To say that such empathetic travel is essential today is to put it mildly, for surely it is more essential now than ever that we as individuals strengthen our ability to imagine ourselves in the positions of other human beings and, indeed, into the plight of the other creatures who share our world.
It is little wonder that graduates in the arts and humanities go on to further study and have successful careers in every field where empathy, creativity, cultural literacy and communication skills are not merely an asset but a necessity: law, business, medicine, politics, government, librarianship, arts management, teaching at all levels and, of course, the creative industries – such as publishing, advertising, television, popular music, performing arts, research and development.
Which brings me to one more reason among many for recognizing the importance of the arts and humanities and keeping them at the core of our educational mission. To study the arts and humanities is to learn to be discerning, to be articulate, to be reflective and to exercise freedom of thought rather than to accept, follow and, in essence, endorse the received wisdom, the expected pattern, the accepted explanation. In other words, it is to become a better citizen — an individual on the road less travelled rather than part of a herd that can too easily be led in a disastrous direction.
In and through the arts and humanities students of all ages strengthen their ability to recognize and to avoid the mechanical responses to life, to people, to rituals, to words, that Alexander Pope saw in Belinda and her wealthy friends in The Rape of the Lock, that George Orwell identified as a dehumanizing consequence of totalitarianism in Politics and the English Language, and that, to his regret, Charles Darwin found in himself.
David Bentley is an English professor at Western. He was a winner of the 2015 Killiam Prize for his distinguished career.