The Humanities Are Not Dead

In recent years the humanities have been the Phoenix Suns; the Miami Marlins; the Arizona Cardinals; the Theresa May; the Sears, Roebuck, and Company, of the academy.

Science sexy. Technology steamy. Data analysis super hot. Religion, art history, English literature, philosophy, decidedly unsexy.

Partially due to the escalating costs of a university education, “What is the ROI—return on investment?” has replaced universal questions about the purposes of life and a life well lived that are the lifeblood of the humanities.

That is the context in which I read this Kara Swisher New York Times commentary titled “Is This the End of the Age of Apple?

Swisher touches upon Apple’s recent struggles and asks:

“Where is the next great boom of innovation going to come from, when even the strongest brands and products might not be sure things anymore?”

She contends:

“Now all of tech is seeking the next major platform and area of growth. Will it be virtual and augmented reality, or perhaps self-driving cars? Artificial intelligence, robotics, cryptocurrency or digital health? We are stumbling in the dark.”

She concludes by imploring:

“We need the next wave of innovation, and we need it now.”

Only if we concede to our President that everything is transactional and deem the humanities completely irrelevant, should we conclude we’re stumbling in the dark because a high profile technology company is struggling. As I write, Swisher has inspired 1,105 comments.

Dig the top rated one, as determined by New York Times readers, by “Childofsol” who resides in Alaska:

“No. What we definitely do not need is more technological innovation in the world of things. How about this: What would truly be innovative, is to develop an economy that isn’t based on endless growth and the mindless consumption that endless growth entails. We need to become a country that values its citizens, as evidenced by clean air and water, the right to health care, and the right to retirement security. A culture which reverses its headlong rush into ever-faster everything, and celebrates the art of living in harmony with the environment which supports us. That’s the kind of innovation we could use more of.”

Or the silver medal comment by “Berk” in Northern California:

“’Where is that next spark that will light us all up?’” A fantastic, memorable vacation? A good story? A great meal with friends? A walk in the woods on a crisp fall day? Experiences, not things.”

All of the top rated comments are similar. Clearly, if we can generalize from New York Times readers even a little, there’s serious skepticism about mindless technology. And a longing for some semblance of balance where the humanities rise from the mat before the quants hurriedly count to eight and declare a technical knockout.

That is heartening.

 

 

What I Learned From a Forced Digital Sabbatical

Despite my charming personality, my university students have a very hard time unplugging from their phones and the internet for the length of a class session—one hour and forty-five minutes. I just did it for 100 hours. I know, total badass.

My digital sabbatical was forced in the sense that I didn’t volunteer to participate. Some families from church were going to Holden Village in Washington State’s Cascade mountains, a four hour car trip, seventy minute boat ride, and slow 11 mile uphill bus ride away. They asked if we wanted to join them. Betrothed wanted to go. Happy wife, happy life.

Actually, I dig Holden. We had been once before, about ten summers ago. Beautiful setting in a dramatic, heavily forested mountain valley. Simple living. Eat, hike, read, pray, socialize, repeat. This time there was 4-5 feet of snow.

Lessons learned:

1) It’s good for introverts to (interpersonally) stretch on occasion. As a card carrying introvert, I like solitude. At Holden I actually have to talk to other human beings at meals, on group hikes, at church services, and in the evenings. I enjoy socializing in moderation.

2) One can read mad amounts when unplugged. I took an unread novel on my iPad and decided to leave behind a hardcopy nonfiction book I’ve just started. Mistake. Thanks to some reading marathons, I blew through the 300 page novel and then scavenged for additional reading material including three sample chapters previously downloaded to the Pad and the cookbook that derailed my reading in the middle of last year. Then I found and read a recent issue of Sports Illustrated. I often wish I read more. All I have to do is step back from the laptop and television.

3) Group living is more exasperating, but ultimately, more enjoyable. One of our carpooling friends decided on the way to the boat to stop and visit her sister in Wenatchee on the way home. “Your kidding me,” I thought to myself. When we turned away from home for that detour I was running low on patience and wishing we had driven separately. But the visit was short and nice. The sister’s husband sells apples all over the world. He had just returned from Germany and Italy and explained how he had tried unsuccessfully to visit a large (10,000 boxes) new customer in Libya. The apple snack was delicious and the family was personable and interesting. I’m glad I met them even if we got home an hour later. We also would have lost out on a lot of joking and good conversation if we had driven separately.

4) While unplugged, the world will continue pretty much as is. In the summer, I think the boat runs daily, so there’s always a day-old New York Times in the village library, but last week there was only our Friday and Monday boat arrival and departure, so no new papers, causing a serious uptick in blood pressure. To make matters worse, our carpoolers drove all the way home without turning on National Public Radio. What if North Korea nuked the South I wondered? Did UCLA beat Stanford? Did Christine Gregoire get a new job in the Administration? Alas, the Russian asteroid and the South African para-athlete girlfriend’s shooting and death were still headline news. It was as if a global news gatekeeper was saying, “Okay, nothing to look at here, move along.”

5) Teenagers are prone to exaggeration. Everything was going fine until Saturday night Contra dancing. Shit, sounds like something Oliver North might have done in the mid-80s. The GalPal was a tad excited. After sticking a fork in my novel, I dragged myself to the dining hall where the tables had all been pushed aside. Betrothed and Seventeen were having a great time. After their dance, Seventeen made a bee-line for me and said, “You HAVE to dance with mom! It will MAKE her life!” “Nahhhh.” “No SERIOUSLY Dad, it will MAKE her life!” Well, who knew, it turns out I have mad Contra dancing skills. And now, apparently, Betrothed can die in peace. I will spare you the photo album and video library of the event.

6) Teenagers aren’t just funny looking, they’re funny. I may have doctored the whiteboard next to the teen’s door. Shortly afterwards they returned serve with this salvo, which as you can see, I doctored.

Advantage twelfth graders.

Advantage twelfth graders.

7) In ping-pong, as in life, quit while you’re ahead. The first night I opened a can of whup ass on the GalPal. We rolled through 7-0 and it ended up something like 21-13. The second night, she also made a stirring comeback, but ultimately succumbed, 22-20. The third night, somehow, she couldn’t find me.

8) I’m a legend in my own mind. Despite turning a year older a week ago, I can still reverse slam dunk with a backpack on.

Mad hops

Mad hops

How long could you completely unplug? I’m guessing somewhere between 1 hour and forty-five minutes and 100 hours? Don’t hurt yourself trying to replicate my feat, but do consider a Holden Village get-away. It’s great for the soul. You don’t have to be Lutheran or even Christian, and you can decide how little or how much to participate in Village life. The lodging is rustic, but clean and comfortable enough for a few days or weeks. The food is mostly vegetarian, plentiful, and tasty. And don’t forget, if you volunteer to scoop ice-cream, you get a free serving afterwards.