Tag Archives: Covid-19 Pandemic

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Can We Salvage the Humanities?

For most of us who have gained richness in our lives through direct access to music, live performance, and academic study, the inadvertent theft of these forms of engagement has been nearly total and devastating.

Though there can be no single measure of the negative effects of the pandemic on our social and intellectual intelligence, the mind reels at what the final tally will be. We are mostly missing what was once the vast array of classroom opportunities, plays, concerts, and travel that survive only in the form of video facsimiles. Of course, the first task through this pandemic is to save lives and keep individuals healthy. Even against the myopia of many slow thinkers in government, that remains true. But for those Americans whose lives were on track to be given greater meaning through live performance, academic study, and direct mentoring, the inadvertent theft of these forms of engagement has been nearly total.

The humanities—fields of inquiry ranging from history to languages to literature and the arts—thrive when open and eager minds can share the same space. It’s our birthright to be with others. For students this means being in the presence of a wonderful instructor in any field that creates insight about what is possible and what’s at stake within human communities. The humanities remind us where we have been and where aspirations made visible can still take us.

For an educator, the pinnacle of this form is perhaps the seminar: a small room shared by 10 or 12 students and an instructor, all beginning the voyage of a shared conversation about the work of a groundbreaking creator of ideas.  We may never be more connected to thoughts that matter than as a participant discussing a writer or creative force bursting with revelatory insights. There may be ways to electronically approximate a meeting of minds. But most are often more performative than enlightening. Communication works better when folks share the same space and time.

It is especially heartbreaking to imagine all of the events, meetings, lectures and performances that have not happened in the last year.  In the United States alone this list would surely be in the millions. Scale down to one organization like a modest-sized college, and it would be in the thousands.

The effects of this cultural shutdown are beginning to be evident and especially costly for the humanities. Enrollments in the nation’s community colleges has dropped at the very moment when non-college adults are at risk for chronic unemployment. More disturbingly, stretched parents are having second thoughts about spending money on any undergraduate curriculum that offers a palette of experiences larger than is required to do a single job. Their concerns are abetted by nearsighted reporting in our media, with headlines like “College Majors With The Lowest Unemployment” or “College Majors With The Worst Return On Investment.”

The pandemic-hastened conversion of a student’s education into vocational training for an employment category is now fully underway, as schools and universities close programs in writing, philosophy, performance studies, history, foreign languages, music, dance, theater, journalism and rhetoric. Never mind that they have missed the more subtle point that a degree in history or philosophy may cultivate wonderful skills needed for innovative work. Writer Julie Schumacher reminds us what her English students can accomplish: “Be reassured: the literature student has learned to inquire, to question, to interpret, to critique, to compare, to research, to argue, to sift, to analyze, to shape, to express.”

I doubt if any of us who have spent time discussing Aristotle’s pragmatism or Suzanne Langer’s insights on presentational art thought that we were wasting our student’s time. Indeed, for reasons I have mentioned before, reading Langer—a philosopher writing in the 1950s—would make any contemporary television journalist a little bit smarter. And Aristotle’s refutation of Plato’s suspicions about public opinion still gives us a clear rationale for striving to protect democratic norms.  In these times, with electoral losers brooding over dark ways to return to power, this should be a primary concern.  Indeed, we can’t afford to not have the humanities, which collectively help us imagine what a great society can ethically achieve.



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Can We CGI the Outfield As Well?

Is it any surprise Americans can’t seem to face so many unadorned and troubling truths right now?

I happened to catch part of the telecast of a baseball game played in Philadelphia last Sunday between the Phillies and Mets. And it was an interesting moment: less so for the game than for what it may say about us. The only folks visible at Citizens Bank Park seemed to be the those scheduled to play, unless we include cardboard cutouts of fans in at least several thousand of the seats in the lower tier. The two men calling the game for SNY network seemed to be in a studio offsite. The only viewer in the stadium appeared to be the Phillie Phanatic, unless he was created virtually using Computer Generated Images. To be sure, he was disturbingly green.

All of this went off as planned for what is going to be a shortened season. What was odd, however, were the attempts to normalize the game by augmenting the audio.

Denial Was Not an Option

The stadium is loaded with 1400 loudspeakers, and it sounded like they were busy smothering the empty seats in sound. Music showed up between almost every pitch, along with boisterous introductions of each batter by the stadium announcer. There was also a generous degree of crowd noise and the noise-makers spectators would normally bring with them. I could be wrong, but none of this faux-life appeared to come from network sources, other than the mics picking up all the stadium ballyhoo to know one. Citizens Bank Park must have its own sound designer.  All of the racket seemed to have the purpose of not letting viewers see the game as it happened, but as they might wish it happened.  The Park is known for creating a lot of noise. But this all struck me as evidence that we are a society that needs to be entertained even under fraudulent circumstances.

As any minor league player moving to the majors knows, a promotion is often called “moving to the show.” Fair enough. But the phony normalcy seems unfair to the players and field staff who are taking risks to play, and a bit of a con on the television audience.  In entertainment terms, the game was more or less the equivalent of a sitcom filmed in a studio, with an audio effects guy “sweetening” the whole thing with “canned” applause and laughter. Apparently baseball and some of the networks desperate for sports content need the fakery to sell to their audiences.

Is it any surprise Americans can’t seem to face so many unadorned and troubling truths right now?  Some colleges have already sent their students back home because of the virus.  But not the football team.  For too many Americans wearing a face mask or staying out of bars or not watching contact sports is unimaginable. Many prefer the magical thinking required to have sports seasons this year. Forget the harder realities of the moment.