Why Bother with the Humanities in a Time of Crisis?

Through riots, wars, and droughts, I teach English. Fiddling while Rome burns?

Appears in Fall 2011 Issue: The good society
September 1st, 2011

As I write this, there have just been four nights of rioting, looting, and burning in London, with Twitter-fed copycat riots in Manchester, Birmingham, Leicester, and elsewhere. I spent two weeks in London earlier this summer, happily wandering the busy and peaceful streets, so now I am asking myself, "What went wrong here?" With businesses, livelihoods, and whole neighbourhoods destroyed—even some loss of life—one young female rioter interviewed on CBC News said, "We wanted to show the police we can do whatever we want, and now we have!" Another, this time a male, said, "It's just a bit of fun."

The news is also full of stories about not only the devastating effects of famine in East Africa, but also the appalling situation in which aid sent from more fortunate countries is deflected by local war-lords, and doesn't get through to the starving women and children we see every day on our televisions. In Egypt, ex-President Mubarak is on trial facing charges of corruption and ordering the killing of protesters during the uprising that ousted him six months ago, but he says he's done nothing wrong; meanwhile the country is still awaiting any real structural change. In Syria, there has been a bloody crackdown by the military on pro-democracy groups in several major cities; in Libya, things are now so bad that Canada has broken off diplomatic relations and has just given Libya's ambassadors five days to leave this country. And as the U.S. faces the humiliation of its first-ever downgraded credit rating and as a growing number of European countries struggle with unmanageable debt and the threat of major bank closures, the world totters on the edge of its second major recession in three years.

What to do? Some analysts look primarily to a stronger police presence in London, the politics of diplomacy and economic sanctions in the Middle East, and courageous business deals in the U.S. Others, while pouring food aid into East Africa, look to the scientific possibilities for long-term drought control. Those who are inclined to factor in causes as well as effects begin to look seriously at an underclass of disadvantaged youth in the U.K. and elsewhere who feel powerless to move forward with their lives. Or they talk gloomily about the "me-generation" that has produced, at least in the West, a society in which looking out for Number One is the overarching goal. But no one doubts the crisis-ridden times. Even in countries where the warfare is not literal, there is ideological or economic warfare going on.

So what am I doing, teaching English? How and why, in the middle of such crises, am I expecting my students to respond?

In times like these, I find myself returning to a piece composed by C.S. Lewis in the first months of the Second World War. It was originally a sermon, called "Learning in War-Time," delivered in the autumn of 1939 in the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford. In it, Lewis addressed the students who had not gone off to war, but were still students, still meant to be reading and learning and thinking and writing, still "fiddling while Rome burns." He argued that there is a bigger question behind any question about the justification for studying at such a time: every Christian who goes to university, he says, must ask, "How it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or to hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology?"

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