American society today suffers from two fundamental
anxieties. One is economic and has many sources, including the accelerating pace of technological change, the impact of
our economy and ways of life on the environment, the globalization of both
labor and capital, and worrisome demographic trends.
Our other anxiety is moral. Its causes are varied as well, but chief among them is increasing
social fragmentation resulting in a loss of trust in one another and the lack
of any sense of a common good. Economic
considerations tend to push aside all others in our political system, but in
the long run, barring an ecological catastrophe, the lack of agreement about
what ultimately matters is a far more serious threat to the vitality of our
The roots of our anxieties are not unrelated. They feed off and exacerbate each
other. Because we lack a vision of a
common good above and beyond the sum total of our individual interests, we
accept the idea that the best society is the one that satisfies the economic
interests or desires of the greatest number of citizens. Thus, the defining characteristics of a
healthy nation become an ever-expanding economy and rising standards of living. We come to expect, individually and
collectively, continuous economic progress as a birthright.
When these expectations are not met, when people begin to
feel economically insecure, they look for someone to blame and this blaming
sets us against each other, worsening the social fragmentation that already
obstructs our vision of a common good.
The search for a common good is the domain of the
humanities. History, literature,
philosophy and cultural studies provide us with the ideas and insights,
analytical and interpretive tools, and language we need to understand each other
and, just as importantly, to understand ourselves. Without such understanding, there is little hope that we will
discover the shared aspirations and ideals out of which a durable sense of the
common good can emerge.
Our lack of a sense of the common good affects virtually
all aspects of public life. Two of the
most prevalent manifestations are rampant cynicism and disdain for virtually
all things “public” and the much-bemoaned decline of civility and decorum in
public discourse in general, and in politics in particular.
Here, too, the humanities and particularly public
issue-oriented humanities programs like The Public Humanist blog can
provide some remedy.
When the perspectives of history, literature, philosophy
and the other humanities disciplines are brought to bear on a controversial
social issue, a broader context is created within which a dispassionate and
reasoned exchange of views can occur.
Unrecognized connections between the issue at hand and other important
issues are revealed; ways the controversy has been resolved (or not) in other
times or in other places are presented for comparison; the underlying values at
stake in the controversy are exposed, and alternative means for preserving
those values can be imagined.
None of this leads automatically to agreement, of course,
but agreement, or at least a modicum of mutual understanding, is far more
likely to occur in this context than in a partisan debate between opposing
Clearly at this time in the life of our nation we need
more humanities, more attempts to understand each other, and ourselves, and to
try to reach some agreement about what ultimately matters.