“The arts are of incalculable worth in what it means to be a human being.” – Philip Pullman. What is the role of arts in education?
Philip Pullman is right. But he could go further: the arts are not just of incalculable worth in what it means to be a human being, they are, simply, what it means to be a human being – to be conscious and conscious of being conscious; to have the yearning which that consciousness impels – to reach outside the self in language and symbol. What distinguishes the human from the animal is not the use of tools, or the caring for the sick; it is the capacity for storing and decoding knowledge and feeling conceptually – in carvings or squiggles, abstract shapes and signifiers. When we imagine a world destitute of art, it is a world in which human beings have ceased to become recognisable as such, either savagely bestial or coldly android. Any “education” must have a component of art; without it there could not be civilisation as we know it, or any higher-order exchange between individual people. When we study art we study what it is to be human – to be trapped inside a skull; to be mortal, and know it, and know that everyone around us knows it too.
But the more sophisticated the education, the more directions it may take; once basic human empathy is established, other developments must be guided. The question of what role art should play becomes a question of ideology – of what sort of humans are desirable, ones that function as unthinking nodes on a network or ones that are decisive, insightful, and autonomous. Tyrants deploy poetry and painting to bolster their reputations as heroic conquerors; dissidents cast new shades on their valour by showing its underlying brutality. Plato banned poetry from his republic because of its capacity to mislead, but art never misleads: men mislead; art only reveals. A well-trained eye may catch distortion and in so doing identify the prejudice. Most obviously, the Nazis depicted Jews as rats, and Germans as blond imagoes to advance the idea that Jewish people were beneath humanity and Aryans were its idealised form. The flaw in the art was in the men first, though interpretation is usually more nuanced – hence we may debate whether Milton was a misogynist or, in fact, a proto-feminist. There are as many types of art as there are people, and the art we choose to promote reflects who we are and who we want to be, perhaps more importantly, who we want others to be.
So far, perhaps, so obvious: the artistic impulse is directly related to whatever it is that defines humanity, and that those impulses may be manipulated in order to direct humanity and its works. We thus see the currents of politics reflected in syllabuses. Art does not exist in a vacuum as men are influenced by the ideas of their time. But art can never be driven by politics; the current wave of identity politics menaces literature syllabuses with the insistence that it must improve society. As if the marginalisations and alienations depicted in literature could be mended by it – minorities embraced and the elite deposed; victims compensated and the guilty punished. Although art is capable of offering redemption on an individual basis, this is a matter for individuals and not for committees. As Harold Bloom, a professor at Yale, has said: “Literature is not an instrument of social change or an instrument of social reform”. You cannot organise mass enlightenment anymore than you can legislate good manners: a syllabus is to learning what law is to morality.
If one selects art based on promoting a political motive, what results will be a necessarily narrow range of work, which will invite still narrower criticism. If we read an author primarily because she is of a particular ethnicity, the work comes to be read only through the lens suggested by this – oppression, colonialism, feminism: art becomes secondhand sociology, or journalism, or history; not art, which is an aesthetic mode – sensation over cognition. Art works best when matters of “ethnicity” and difference are allowed to vanish into the background; the affinities and parallels between character and reader come to the fore and identification is allowed to happen on a seamlessly organic, humanistic basis. Empathy cannot be forced. The study of art should lead to a deeper understanding of humanity writ large: its commonalities; the variance within it; its history and its continuity. The reading of Milton or Shakespeare can tell more of the range of human experience than ever can a highly politicised reading of Morrison or Rushdie.
Recently, undergraduates at Mr. Bloom’s university have petitioned for a removal of a core course on “major English poets”, who include Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth and Eliot. The petition demands Yale “decolonise” the course – “to deliberately include literatures relating to gender, race, sexuality, ableism, and ethnicity”. But the canon of western literature is defined not by professors (and even less by students) – whatever they may think – but by its lasting artistic and cultural impact; to edit the canon we teach would only serve to obscure our origins, whether those origins are colonial or not (let us overlook the fact that Chaucer’s England did not even have empire in sight, and Eliot was American). If our history is accented with patriarchy and racism, let that be held up to scrutiny. Let us try to know the minds of intelligent, sensitive men who were party to systems of oppression. Let us enquire of how much contemporary art retains, reflects, or revises the artistic tenets of its predecessors: toppling the legacies of poets will not undo the crimes of empire, it will only blind us – and our inheritors – to them. Where knowledge could guard against repetition of such crimes (and of the dismissal of such crimes’ contemporaneous consequences), there will only be ignorance.
Of course, every age has thought that it has struck the right balances in complex social equilibria; every age has so far been wrong. To try to edit the canon to cater to ideologies of the moment is not only childishly presumptive, it is also misguided, and can result only in the degradation of the study and criticism of literature, as well as the art itself. Bloom is candid when characterising those who wish to overhaul the canon: “a pride of displaced social workers”, “a rabblement of lemmings” – a “mélange of latest-model feminists, Lacanians, that whole semiotic cackle, latest-model pseudo-Marxists, so-called New Historicists…and third generation deconstructors”. This motley crew, the way Bloom sees it, has no appreciation for – or relationship with – literary or aesthetic values; they are politically motivated, reformers who look to interfere with what they do not understand and who in doing so debase it in ways they cannot comprehend.
The percolation of politics into art is, to some extent, inevitable, but it should be limited as much as possible. The best art is timeless; politics are driven by fashions – reaction is violent and viral and usually fades to a distant memory within the span of a lifetime. If art is too much influenced by ephemera we lose the best of it – if we select based on shallow political relevance we miss the deeper human spirit. Exploration of this – of the human spirit – is the role of art in education; never as an opiate against difficulty but to act as a palliative against isolated suffering; it sharpens our sensitivity to what the trouble may be and how we may overcome it. As the late David Foster Wallace said:
“[…] an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of “generalization” of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside.”
Wallace wrote much to counter loneliness and suffering, the vermiculate involutions of hiding and concealing that he saw as characteristic much of postmodern socialising (think the curatedness of social media and the reactive “real” accounts, wherein increased “freedom” is synonymous with greater loneliness. In such times, an education in the arts is more important than ever, when real, human interaction is becoming rarer and less necessary. It’s not so much that the arts have a role in education; just as they are not a social utility – they are not simply a “means to an end”. They are an end in and of themselves, a deeply human activity that requires no more political involvement or explanation than sex. They are sources of pleasure – hard-won insight as well as easy thrills and laughs; they can provide solidarity in times of loneliness. Any education in art must be wide and deep, not temporally and politically circumscribed. The appreciation of art that will result from this is a foundation of empathy and human interaction, elucidating not only others’ humanity but your own. Pieces you revisit will reflect your change and growth that comes with the passing of time. Your favourite books will be friends for a lifetime.