I was listening to a quartet of students in my Creative Writing class the other day complain about their English classes. What's the point of it, they wanted to know. They felt simultaneously that the things they were asked to do, like literary analysis, were too demanding and not rigorous enough, that they were asked to see what was not there while ignoring the skills that might actually be useful. I didn't say anything. For one, I was flattered that they felt comfortable enough to have that conversation when I was sitting right next to them. For another, I feel, perhaps ironically, that those kind of conversations are exactly the ones that a good English or Humanities curriculum ought to make possible. I didn't feel that I could articulate that to them in that moment in a way that wouldn't overwhelm the conversation they were having. I also did not feel that I could pull out Marilynne Robinson's new collection of lectures, What Are We Doing Here? and find the passage I really wanted to share with them. But I've found it, and I share it with you:
The contemporary assault on the humanities has something of the same objective and would employ similar methods. Workers, a category that seems to subsume us all except the idlest rich, should learn what they need to learn to be competitive in the new economy. All the rest is waste and distraction.
Competitive with whom? On what terms? To what end? With anyone whose vigor and good fortune allows them to prosper, apparently. And will these competitors of ours be left to enjoy the miserable advantage of low wages and compromised health? And is there any particular reason to debase human life in order to produce more, faster, without reference to the worth of the product or to the value of the things sacrificed to its manufacture? Wouldn't most people, given an hour or two to reflect, consider this an intolerably trivial use to be put to, for them and their children? Life is brief and fragile, after all. Then what is this new economy whose demands we must always be ready to fill? We may assume it will be driven by innovation and by what are called market forces, which can be fads or speculation or chicanery. Oh yes, rowdy old capitalism. Let it ply its music. Then again, in the all-consuming form proposed for it now, it is a little like those wars I mentioned earlier. It is equally inimical to poetry, eloquence, memory, the beauty of wit, the fires of imagination, the depth of thought. It is equally disinclined to reward gifts that cannot be turned to its uses. The urgency of war or crisis has been brought to bear on our civil institutions, which is to say, on the reserves and resources of civility we have created over many generations.
The answer I would give my students is not an answer but a question: what are your Math and Science classes "good for?" I don't meant to diminish those fields, and neither does Robinson, who makes repeated allusions to the twentieth century's great scientific discoveries. But we never ask the question what those classes are good for because we think we know: they help us get jobs, to be competitive, whether on the personal or national scale, and to make money. The intuitive leap from the money to the happiness goes unsaid, even as we say we believe that money can't buy happiness. But Chemistry and Biology and Algebra won't tell you how to cope when you wake up in the middle of the night with your wife or husband beside you in a California King bed in your beautiful, well-apportioned home and wonder why you feel so deeply unsatisfied. A painting or a book or a poem might help you, or it might help you understand why and how such a thing could come to pass, or it might merely give you a kind of satisfaction that has eluded you. We find it difficult to think of art as an end rather than a means, even as we take it as evidence of a flourishing culture.
The "here" in Robinson's title is the university. But it serves also for the cosmos. The questions, why are we here at school, and why are we here in the universe, are not unrelated. Robinson holds up the American university system, with its roots in the Puritan belief that education is for all people, as an institution created in accordance with the basic worth of the human being. That's her big subject: the special position of the human being in the universe, a quality which she reveals as self-evident despite the many millennia we have spent trying to diminish or conceal that fact. She offers up old-time religion as a mode of thinking that accommodates this special position, at odds with the positivism and determinism that have characterized 20th-century thinking. She saves a special rage for the attitudes, like Freudianism, Darwinism, and neurobiology, which would eliminate ideas of the soul or the mind, and thus, she feels, the human being. I'm not sure I agree with the particulars all the time (Freud gets dragged a little too much these days, I think) but the central argument seems to me to be one of the truest things I have ever read.
All this sounds familiar because it's the same general thrust of her last collection of essays, The Givenness of Things. If it's repetitive, I don't mind; most of it bears repeating. What Are We Doing? is repetitive within itself. As a series of lectures given at disparate moments, a pattern of key ideas begins to emerge. It will be difficult to forget, after reading these, that no one was put to death under Oliver Cromwell for religious reasons, or that Einstein's remark that the universe is remarkable in the fact that we can comprehend it ought to suggest that we are equally remarkable. Robinson hammers especially hard a point that she begins making in Givenness, that the Puritans are in need of a critical and cultural rehabilitation. I spent too much time in graduate school writing about John Milton to disagree with that.
With Robinson, it's hard to complain about more of the same because the same comes from a place that strikes me as deeply wise. What this collection adds to the previous might be a knife's-edge awareness of our particular historical moment. Besides the full-throated defense of the American university, there's an encomium to President Obama, who famously interview Robinson a few years ago. There's a single reference to Trump, at the end, and it's a dismissal of theories of Russian collision. But there's no ignoring her critique of nativists, "these lovers of country, these patriots," who "are wildly unhappy with the country they claim to love and are bent on remaking it to suit their own preferences, which they feel no need to justify or even fully articulate." And the final lecture, called "Slander," Robinson tells the story of how her mother's obsession with Fox News caused them to be alienated from one another. "She went to her rest before she would have had to deal with the ignominy of my conversation with the president," Robinson writes. What a deeply sad sentence to have to write. But it underscores the ways in which a return to the humanist ideals of our early modern forebears might present an antidote to our parochialism, our fear, our ennui, and our profound feelings of diminution.