The humanities have fallen on hard times lately. With the absurdly high cost of a college education and the resulting burden of student loan debt, there is more pressure than ever for university students to major in “something that will help them get a job.” The translation for that is to study business or information technology.
I’m going to argue that the social cost of the declining interest in the humanities is very high and is becoming increasingly higher. My argument is based upon the principle that all of us, and especially young people, need to think poetically. To the extent we can’t do that, there’s going to be serious trouble.
The serious trouble that I’m talking about includes suicide. According to an article in First Things entitled “Dying of Despair,” in just one year the largest school district in Los Angeles recorded more than 5,000 incidents of suicidal behavior or self-harm. The article describes in grim detail what it calls “a national epidemic of suicide and depression.”
According to the First Things article, the main culprit underlying suicide statistics is social fragmentation. One expert, Angus Deaton, is quoted as saying that the rise in suicide depends “on family, on spiritual fulfillment, and on how people perceive meaning and satisfaction in their lives in a way that goes beyond material success.”
If young people lack imagination, if they think that the meaning and purpose of their lives is directly tied to academic success and financial wealth, then the stage has been set for alienation, isolation, depression and self-harm.
So just where does thinking poetically solve the problem?
In response to that question, I’m going to quote extensively from John Senior, who was the founder and lead professor in a humanities program at the University of Kansas in the 1970’s that led to a great number of converts to the Catholic faith. Many of those converts became Catholic priests.
Senior says that “Poetry is a way of knowing universals in particulars.” He states that “The artist is someone who knows how to speak on an experiential level – about a passing, singular event – while giving us an impression of something beyond the individual, suggesting a meaning of permanent and universal value.” “Modern man,” he once said, “must first relearn how to look at the world in a musical or poetic manner in order to renew his wonder about existence.” Our imagination has to be restored.
The essential truths of existence, the mysteries of being, can only be approached through wonder, through imagination. While this is true of all created things, it is especially true about God, about Jesus. Senior asserts that Scripture is poetic, that we must listen to it like music, letting it sink in.
Accordingly, the motto for Senior’s humanities program was Nascantur in admiratione (Let them be born in wonder.). He once asked one of his graduating classes this question: “In the pursuit of horizontal things, have you failed to raise your eyes and mind and heart to the stars, to the reason for things, and beyond, as Dante says…’To the love which moves the sun and all the other stars.’”
When we have our eyes and our minds fixed on the stars, on the reason for things and the mysteries underlying such reasons, we see our meaning and purpose on a much grander scale than academic achievement and material possessions. And, in the light of that grander meaning and purpose, we are able to overcome the setbacks that might otherwise lead to depression and self-injury.