April 19, 2015
“. . . when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle class, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language — and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers — a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It’s a finding place.” — Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
I graduated in 1976 with a liberal arts degree in English literature, and pretty much all of my adult life the value of this degree has eroded. It seemed to me that the 1980s began the rejection of all values other than money, and now our culture defines success by one’s monetary and material wealth. Someone like me, who is not naturally inclined to math, economics, sciences, engineering or technology, but who prefers the arts, philosophy, the humanities feels like a misfit. But when I look back on my life, I know I have been saved by reading. Books are my “finding place.” In the words of Lynda Barry, books have given me a world to “dwell and travel in.”
Poetry matters. Literature matters. Art matters. Beauty matters. They are priceless.
“It is time that we had uncommon schools, that we did not leave off our education when we begin to be men and women. It is time that villages were universities, and their elder inhabitants the fellows of universities, with leisure . . . to pursue liberal studies the rest of their lives. . . .Why should our life be in any respect provincial?”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Thoreau makes a case for a liberal arts education, reading the classics, and lifelong learning. He felt it was not enough to focus solely on things that farmers and traders value, but that money could be spent on bringing scholars and lecturers and culture to the people.
In today’s world, wired to the Internet, we have ready access to the best of the world’s literature, music, and the arts. The selection is almost unlimited; we are limited only by our choices. But how poorly we often choose. We have so much more leisure time than our great-grandparents, and yet so often our lives feel culturally impoverished. In today’s world, we have no excuse for starvation for excellence except our own laziness.
One of my all-time favorite writers, Carol Bly, investigates this fall into intellectual poverty in an essay, “A Gentle Education for Us All” from her book, Letters from the Country. She observes that, “The granddaughters of the women who piled turkey and dressing and four pies and jars of homemade gooseberry preserves onto the church sawhorse tables now come to the county fair with pie-mix pies and to church suppers with very third-rate hot dishes based on fake Chinese noodles and artificially flavored gelatin salads. . . . All this second-rate behavior is no elegant moral breakdown in my opinion, but rather the result of everyone being told ever since the end of World War II that your image in others’ eyes, as well as your own, had to do mainly with your vocation and your acquired property.” Schools and educators postitioned arts, music, and literature as impractical in a world where everything of value was thought of in terms of a job.
Bly recognizes that technical competence is good, and does indeed have value, for eight hours of one’s life. But what of the other 16 hours of the day? Bly advocates for educating the whole person by means of a return to a liberal arts education because the best literature and art and music illuminates the circumstances of our own lives. Liberal arts educates for happiness.
I have often thought that a public school education is wasted on youth; I would appreciate it so much more at my age. When I was 30 years old, I did break from my working life to go back to college for a graduate degree. These days, with another decade of working life ahead of me, I am challenged to keep growing and learning on my own. Our wonderful libraries and the internet do make lifelong learning easier. But what’s missing from my life is a classroom of kindred seekers and a gifted teacher who can inspire creative thinking on topics of interest or open windows to new interests outside my immediate sphere. I know these kinds of opportunities are out there, especially for retired people. It will be my job to find them.