What the humanities does to you

What the humanities does to you

by UA&P News Desk on January 19, 2011 - 3:12 pm

From UNIVERSITAS July 2009 issue*

by Mr. Philip Peckson, CAS Faculty


There is a dangerous misunderstanding outside and in the University that the Humanities is  a course closer to creative writing, to theater, or to the fine arts than to the academic discipline which it truly is. From this confusion, the Humanities inherit from the Arts the impressions ‘fun’ and ‘easy,’ the unfortunate result being the attraction of those refugees from life who see in the Arts an escape from rigor and precise language and consequently an evasion of responsibility.

Hence the proliferation within the Humanities of the artist and the artist-like. No injustice is done to the former for questions of talent, of whether painting, songs and poems have promise, are of small relevance. It is a grave error to assume that the mind that creates art shall do excellently in criticism. And it is criticism that is the vocation proper to the academic Humanities, our MA Humanities. Its mental activity is very different to that of the artist.

The MA Humanities program is a training ground for the Filipino critic who is, really, the Filipino intellectual. The concept, nonetheless, is ambiguous. What is an intellectual? What does he or she do? One book puts it grandiosely: “Intellectuals are those who are qualified to give advice to the rest of humanity.”

I would rather give an answer in the spirit of Jacques Barzun (who inspires this essay): Intellectuals are those who have made an obsession of prevision in language and hence precision in thought. He is not a repeater of grand glutinous phrases but a creator of what ought to be condemned, kept, borrowed, or jettisoned; he is a critic of culture.

A taste for intellect begins when the student is brought before the sublime, is moved, and can no longer be satisfied with the platitudes his mind can offer. Priam kissing the hands of the man who killed his son is not simply sad, neither is it merely depressing: The tremendous power of Homer will demand from those who dare reply to him a criticism that is almost poetry; a lecture that is against the boundaries of language. He strives for a greater and greater precision. He becomes intellectual.

The first years at CAS give the student a taste of intellect that is sustained and made central in the Humanities program. It is his induction into a life of, and not a skill with, the mind. Coleridge describes the intellectual as belonging to a clerisy. he is correct. Intellect invades every aspect of being: a man’s speech, a man’s thought, a man’s writing. Neither will it spare his love.

It is openness of the cultivated intellect, the fact that its application is not limited to a particular field, that gives credence to the clichés that call the graduate of the Humanities a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ or an ‘easy learner’. His proper home is the academe. But anywhere else, he can by the strength of his mind be expected to excel. #

* The UNIVERSITAS Rewind section in news.uap.asia features insightful, timeless stories previously printed in the publication.

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