Sunday, April 29, 2012

words are magic

Sometimes I get discouraged about the lack of "REAL WORLD" skills my literature studies have provided me with.  Especially when "SCIENCE" provides lists like this one (featured in Newsweek):

The 13 Most Useless College Majors (As Determined By Science):
1.  Fine Arts
2.  Drama and Theatre Arts
3.  Film, Video, and Photographic Arts
4.  Commercial Art and Graphic Design
5.  Architecture
6.  Philosophy and Religious Studies
7.  English Literature and Language
8.  Journalism
9.  Anthropology and Archeology
10.  Hospitality Management
11.  Music
12.  History
13.  Political Science and Government

Thank you, Science.  My life is more or less composed entirely of #1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, & 11.

Now I have a word about these "useless studies."  Useless implies these Science-people are making some sort of value judgement of what counts as "use" or "utility." There is a crucial assumption that said-Science-people have overlooked: how they're defining "use."  There are more kinds of utility than monetary value.  Yes, maybe the above majors are useless if you're trying to make a million before you turn 30.  They may be useless if you're trying to land yourself in a career right upon graduation.  They may also be useless if you're trying to build missiles or stop computer hackers or fly an airplane.  But since when are these things the things we live for?  They are merely functions to staying alive...

Maybe my degrees don't do much in the way of curing cancer or sequencing the human genome.

Ahem.  Or maybe they do:

I heard a story recently of a famous opera singer who sang at a special banquet.  When an older woman commented on his beautiful voice afterwards, he remarked that he'd always wished he'd become a heart surgeon, and that his entire life, he'd felt badly for not doing something that more actively healed people.  The woman told him that there is more than one way to be a heart surgeon, that his music and his voice had healed her heart that night.

Similarly, in a storytelling contest in Chicago, Peter Sagal (of NPR's "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me!") told about his friend Morgan who met Mother Teresa in New York.  Morgan told Mother T that she wanted to go with her to Calcutta because Mother T's work was "important."  When Mother Teresa asked what Morgan's work was, she said, "What I do isn’t important. I work in a theater and I help put on plays. What use is that?”  Mother Teresa replied, “There are so many different kinds of famine in this world.  In my country, there is a famine of the body. In this country, there is a famine of the spirit. Stay here and feed your people.”

So I'm not using engineering to build wells in Africa to save a thirsty nation. Nor do I know how to cut out tumors to save lives.  But there are more kinds of "life" than the physical mortal one.  And there are more ways to save a life than through medicine.  Art is a medicine of its own, and its own kind of nation-saving well.  Maybe I'm mapping the human genome in a different way than "Science" understands: through story and photography and reading people as well as reading books.

And what would this world be music, art, literature?  These are the things that make our life lovely.  If we stripped down life to only that which serves these Science-people's definition of "use," you know what we'd have?  Concrete block buildings and art that only serves political purposes--both of which would be utterly use-full: not a single aesthetic superfluity.  But there is more to life than practical utility.  I'm not living in survival mode, and neither are you.  Add thoughts to the world, not products.  Help people come to better thoughts within themselves.  I want beautiful film, I want beautiful music, I want beautiful words, and I want to revel in all of them and in the cosmic experiences they bring me to.  

So revel a little with me:


  1. this is perfect. you should read (if you haven't already) The Last Cellist of Sarajevo. I haven't gotten to it just yet but I've heard an interview on NPR about it twice now and it's about the importance of art and beauty and what civilization really means in times of peril. I really want to read it; maybe we should embark on this together?

    1. Yes Lindsay, let's do it. It will be the first book on my summer reading list.

    2. done and done. Let me know when your summer reading begins.