Academics and public intellectuals have been launching high-level, philosophical defenses of the liberal arts for years, with seemingly little positive impact on public opinion. However, the political turmoil currently playing out on the international stage has been an unlikely boon for the humanities because it has drawn our attention – in the starkest terms possible – to the importance of close reading, critical thinking and ethical reasoning.
As a professor of medieval and renaissance literature, one of my biggest challenges is to help students find an access point into texts that are, at first glance, strange and unfamiliar. Since the 2016 U.S. election, however, I’ve noticed that students are increasingly searching for ways to understand the complex and disorienting world around them, and that the humanities in general – and literature in particular – offer an incredibly useful set of tools for gaining fresh insight into our new global reality.
When I teach medieval literature, we usually read Geoffrey Chaucer’s The House of Fame, a 14th-century dream vision. In this dense allegorical poem, the narrator recounts how he falls asleep and dreams that he is transported to the House of Fame, where he watches petitioners ask the goddess Fame for everlasting renown.
In Chaucer’s account, who becomes famous and why are completely arbitrary: those who do good works can be shamed while those who do evil deeds can gain renown, and those who do good but do not seek glory are exalted. Fame operates without pattern and without justification, a concept that we, in our (post) reality TV context, are uniquely situated to appreciate. When we discuss how fame operates in our contemporary cultural milieu, students are struck by the capricious nature of fame (and infamy) in the context of what goes viral or who breaks the internet. The concept remains the same even as the mode of dissemination changes.
This poem is even more relevant to our current political climate when Chaucer discusses the House of Rumour. This house is built out of twigs and sticks, and is easy to enter and leave. Sometimes a truth and a lie attempt simultaneously to exit but they get stuck in the same passageway; after arguing over which one has precedence, they mix together so that they can fit through the aperture, and truth and falsehood become sworn brother. They are then rerouted to Fame, who arbitrarily assigns each tiding a particular status for a particular duration, which is then trumpeted to the world.
Chaucer’s poem has uncanny resonance in the light of our own political reality of “alternative facts” and “truthiness,” of an American president who tweets about “fake news,” and of an administration openly hostile to freedom of the press. Long before the current cast of characters strutting and fretting their hour upon this stage, Chaucer draws attention to the concept of truth as messy and complex and elusive, and calls upon us to think carefully and in nuanced ways about how we can possibly know things about the world around us.
Students inevitably express their despair that we are merely repeating the same tropes and struggling with the same problems Chaucer articulated 650 years earlier. If we haven’t figured out the problem by now, they exclaim, aren’t we doomed to repeat the same mistakes in perpetuity? However, what looks like despair from one perspective can be a source of hope from another vantage point.
In the humanities, we do not pretend that there is a singular answer or indivisible truth. Instead, we must embrace complexity – and all the discomfort and disorientation that this approach entails – in an attempt to move towards a truth that is more inclusive, more nuanced, and richer for the struggle. There are answers and truths, but they are found in the dynamic interplay between context and evidence and theory. Since these conditions are always changing, the answers must also always evolve.
Hillary Clinton, in a commencement address at Wellesley College in 1992, said: “Each new generation takes us into new territory. But while change is certain, progress is not. Change is a law of nature; progress is the challenge for both a life and society.”
The tipping point between despair and hope lies in the ability to acknowledge, and even celebrate, that knowledge is messy. If we can teach our students to be comfortable with the difficulty of knowing – and become comfortable with it ourselves as scholars and teachers – then we can move forward with hope and a renewed commitment to close reading, critical thinking and ethical reasoning.