I’m proud to say that I’m not very easily proven wrong (at least in my opinion), and if I am, I very rarely take any remarks personally. I enjoy a good debate as much as the next one. I’m also very set in my vision of what the world is all about and what constitutes a “good life”. However, one Wednesday evening a couple of weeks ago I was struck silent by a debate with my two good friends. We were in the pub having a couple of beers after a day of studies and work, and we got into a discussion, where each of us tried to justify to the others why we study what we study and why we think how we think.
The premise was promising for a fruitful debate: I was the humanist; the linguist; the “mind over matter” philosopher. My friend number one (let’s call him Tom) was a student at the Helsinki School of Economics; the economist; the one who one who could reduce all existence into an equation, where on one side is Money and on the other side is Happiness. My friend number two (that’d be Harry) was a graduated engineer; the one who would assert that technology is the future; the “we must build machines that will build machines” utopianist.
So we’d drink a few beers, exchange common pleasantries, until Tom turns to me and says: “So Simo, are you still wasting your time with your linguistic studies, or have you finally started on something actually useful?”
BOOM! Struck Silent I.
Tom was always going on about how the future is in global financial markets – a very stereotypical, and often parodied, frame of thought from an HSE student. Life was all about harvesting material and making money. Money is great, I like money. Material, too, is great. But hasn’t it always been said that money should be a means, not an end? But what got me most about Tom’s simple and innocent question was the fact that that’s how they all must see us humanities students. By all I mean everyone else. Since our selected branch of academic study doesn’t really lead us anywhere (except to teaching, another blatant stereotype), they must all think we’re mad! We’re wasting our lives learning about art, literature, history, cultures, languages and other “spiritual gibberish” (direct translation from one of Tom’s comments about humanities) and that’s why we’re wasting golden opportunities.
Harry, even though in a far more lukewarm manner, soon sided with Tom. Harry agreed with money being of paramount importance, but disagreed with it being used as an absolute value. Harry didn’t believe in my choice of studies either, but he did appreciate art and how some people might get their kicks out of the “spiritual gibberish”, even if they’ll have to live in poverty for all of their lives.
Poverty? Golden opportunities wasted? Struck Silent II.
So, here I was, struck silent twice in the course of 10 minutes. I was forced to defend my vocation, if not for myself, then for all the other humanities students, whose dreams and ambitions people like Tom and Harry were set on shattering. So here’s what I think about it all:
I believe that in a world full of people like Tom and Harry, humane values are of the utmost importance. Economics and technology, while extremely important in sustaining the machinations of our society, would soon wither away if not accompanied by an understanding of humanity, its history, its love for beauty and literature, the many wonderful creations of the human mind. The ability to understand and study things in the metaphysical level is what separates us from robots. Being human is the necessary evolutionary backbone that we humans need in order to provide the society, fuelled by economical and political laws, some sort of frame of reference. If you look at history, you’ll notice that it’s most often organised by technological inventions (and wars). The arrowhead, the wheel, the writing system, the printing press – each invention echoes the fulfilment of a need; something necessary to better the lives of people. Art and humanities can thus be easily dismissed as having no such purpose. But that leaves the question why do we need people like me? What can be so profoundly interesting in something as vague as the human mind?
An understanding of humanity is something that every single person, regardless of profession, needs in order to survive. Tom and Harry can’t possibly justify their own vocations if they dismiss the history of their own professions. Tom and Harry can’t possibly state that art and culture haven’t shaped the world and even their own lives. Tom and Harry can’t possibly be so blind that they’d like to live in a world where instead of Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos you’d only hear the rattling of coins in the cash register or the steady hum of an electric regulator.
The world needs economics, politics and technology. Our mode of thought at least since the days of colonialism has been predominantly economic and technological. I’m not going to refute that, because it really is a fact of life. But the future – my friends – the future is in humanism! The human mind is the centrepiece of all creation. In the throes of globalisation I believe studying art and all the other “spiritual gibberish” is more important than ever before. Cultures are being overrun by their bigger and stronger friends, and work must be done to ensure cultural preservation.
This was what I was supposed to say to Tom and Harry, but I was still suffering from Struck Silent II, and could only mumble: “Stuff it guys”. Tom and Harry got the best of me then, but maybe after writing this article I can direct them to read it and thus get my say in the debate.
While walking home from the pub I saw a magnificent sunset. It lifted my spirits, because I knew that Tom couldn’t capture it with any amount of money, Harry couldn’t recreate it with any amount of machinery, but I, the lowly humanities student, could just stand still and watch it in awe, capturing a piece of it in my mind forever.