Class and contemplation

I posted my comment on viewing the whole matter of the American academy and the humanities from a broadly historical perspective, because my own responses to the problems of the academy have been somewhat mitigated over the years by just such historical considerations. The point of my comments was that the place of the humanities in the university is both a product of history, and at play in historical trends beyond itself that any argument – sound or otherwise – cannot properly address or effect. That’s no consolation, but does provide a moment to ask where in this stream we are really swimming.

Throughout my education, from 2nd grade to doctorate, I was recurrently reminded by teachers, administrators and peers, that, coming from the working poor, I was extremely fortunate to have access to learning that really wasn’t intended for those of my background. * Indeed, I was. 200 years ago, I probably would never have learned to read; 500 years ago, I would not have been allowed to learn to read. The books of the tradition before the 19th century were not written for my eyes, the music before then was not composed for my ears. The notion that art and literature has some universal value that we all have a right to, is historically easy to falsify. (Which of course is not to say that I dismiss pre-Modern arts and literature, or reject their availability, to the contrary: I am quite sincere in saying I consider myself lucky to have been born in this era, when such were made available to those of my class.) Nonetheless, I remain suspicious of claims that some necessary human truth is delivered us through the traditional arts (beyond the undeniable truth that people who can paint or write or compose, etc., will do so when they can).

But while there is a great deal of class-based ramblings in Western philosophy, there is very little of it in Buddhist philosophy, and Buddhism has a surprising track record of sages who came from humble origins. Becoming a Buddhist, I fully realized the truth of Aristotle’s claim that the richest life would be that of contemplation. Aristotle’s strongest claim for this was in the Politics, wherein Aristotle surmises that governmental structures inevitably grow corrupt, and that participation in politics inevitably corrupts individuals. The more we participate, the more complicit we become. Perhaps the most honest and virtuous choice we can make is simply opting out of the fabric of a society that can not live up to the best elements of its ideology, and refuses to change in order to do so.

Buddhism also insists on engagement with others to alleviate suffering. But for me, philosophy – east and west – has provided the richest experiences of my life. I don’t believe this can be taught – but it can be learned. Perhaps the best argument for the humanities is that they provide opportunities for learning. That may not sell many student loans, but it may persuade some young people to rethink what they expect from a college education.


  • Let no one misunderstand, despite the carefully worded main text here, and risking the banality of cultural criticism: I was not supposed to have earned a doctorate, I was not supposed to have thought deeply on Shakespeare, or Kant, etc.  And I was told that, by implication on many occasions, but explicitly on some.  The notion that the arts and literature ‘belong to the masses’ is a myth, and every historical record demonstrates it.   I was fortunate to get to it at all – but not without scars.

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