That is the provocative question asked in a recent New York Times column by Stanley Fish. His answer was simple: You do not have to. “They are,” he wrote, “their own good.” I tend to agree, but I reach my conclusion from an entirely different perspective than he does.
Fish, the famous postmodernist professor, was unhappy about a government report on the state of higher education in New York State, in which “all the emphasis is on science, partnerships with industry, and advances in technology.”
Fish went on to add, “If there is to be a brave new world in New York higher education, it doesn’t look as if the humanities and the arts will be a significant part of it.”
I would say that holds true for schools across the country. Think about it: How often have you heard anyone say that our kids need to do better at math and science? Often. But, when was the last time you heard it said that they need to study more art, or literature, or music?
You get the idea.
But as Fish acknowledges, his line of thinking raises a question: Why do we need to teach the arts in schools? As a secular humanist, he says, it would be easy for him to go along with the traditional humanistic idea that the arts and humanities “ennoble” us by inspiring us to want to be like the great heroes portrayed in art and literature.
But Fish cannot buy into that. “If it were true,” he notes dryly, “the most generous, patient, good-hearted, and honest people on earth would be the members of literature and philosophy departments, who spend every waking hour with great books and great thoughts. And,” Fish continued, “as someone who’s been there (for 45 years), I can tell you it just isn’t so.”
Moreover, Fish believes that that is exactly “how it should be. Teachers of literature and philosophy are competent in a subject, not in a ministry. It is not the business of the humanities to save us.”
I agree, but let me illustrate why. You may remember a much acclaimed movie a few years back called The Pianist. The film told how music transformed a Nazi officer into a man willing to feed and shelter a Jewish musician. That was not an accurate picture, however. In real life, the officer who saved the musician did so not because he loved music, but because he was “an ardent Catholic who abhorred Nazism.” Many Nazis loved music, but music itself did not “ennoble” them. It just gave them a welcome respite from murdering Jews and other innocent victims.
So what are the arts and humanities good for? Here is where I think the Christian worldview provides an answer that Fish cannot grasp. They teach that God made humans creative beings, like Himself. The works of art we create—sculpture, literature, drama—reflect the glory and beauty of the Creator of life. This is what gives the arts their intrinsic value. Any beneficial effect that they might have on human thinking—and usually they do have such effects—is a good thing, but it is not why we create, and it does not add or detract from the value of art.
No, the humanities cannot save us, but because their mere existence speaks of and glorifies our Creator, they are more than justified.