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Earl Shorris

Earl Shorris: I’ve argued that the humanities provide the most practical education. If we can stipulate that knowing is better than not knowing, then the comparison is between education, as in studying the humanities, and training, as in learning to operate a computer or mop floors or pull a tooth or make out a will. We can start from the simplest kind of training, that is, training to repeat the least complex task, which might be mopping floors or repetitively entering numbers into a computer. Such work is poorly paid, with little or no chance for advancement. Historically, the poor have been trained to do such tasks as a way of maintaining a low cost labor force. During the industrial revolution, an ethic (Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is the best description of it) developed that kept the poor “happily” at their labors.

Training for complex tasks, such as dentistry or engineering, is more demanding, but nevertheless training, in that it teaches the student to do something that has been done before: pull a tooth, build a bridge, and so on. Compare even that kind of training to education in the humanities—philosophy, art, history, literature, and logic, in Petrarch’s formulation. The distinction is between doing and thinking, between following and beginning. Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish student of the humanities, with no formal training in astronomy, quite literally turned the universe inside out. Few ideas in modern history have had more influence on scientific thinking than the Copernican Revolution. Similarly, Descartes, whose method is at the base of technological activity, was not himself a technologist or even a scientist; he was a philosopher. If America is to remain a leading nation, it will do so because of the humanities, not because of training, even of the most sophisticated kind.

Let’s apply that practicality to a person living in the second or third generation of poverty. If one has been “trained” in the ways of poverty, left no opportunity to do other than react to his or her environment, what is needed is a beginning, not repetition. The humanities teach us to think reflectively, to begin, to deal with the new as it occurs to us, to dare. If the multi-generational poor are to make the leap out of poverty, it will require a new kind of thinking—reflection. And that is a beginning.

— Mass Humanities, Social Transformation through the Humanities: An Interview with Earl Shorris