The Humanities and Public Life, edited by Peter Brooks

by Rachel Baker on May 8, 2014

Every once in a while, I find a non-fiction book that captures my attention and imagination. The Humanities and Public Life, edited by Peter Brooks, is one of those books.

In truth, I’m not that far into it, but I’ve thought about it almost continually. I was able to get a review copy of it recently; and thought well, I’ll read a page here and there when I got to bed. But then, I was up for hours, trying to understand the arguments I was reading and contemplating what I thought.

The lack of critical reading is a huge issue in our country. I think we should teach it starting early in the education process and I think our politicians should have to prove they can read critically prior to running for any type of office; and I think debate should be a required class for all high school students. I just do. I think 90% of the disagreement in our country is because people don’t know how to critically read.

I’m not actually sure I have the intellectual capacity to discuss this book in great detail – If a group of scholars and intellectuals can’t come up with a solution, then little old me certainly can’t. All I can say is, I am engrossed by the topic and I will continue reading as time permits.

If you are interested in the political, economic, scientific, literary or any other intellectual discourse of our country, I would encourage you to read this book.

Synopsis: This book tests the proposition that the humanities can, and at their best do, represent a commitment to ethical reading. And that this commitment, and the training and discipline of close reading that underlie it, represent something that the humanities need to bring to other fields: to professional training and to public life.

What leverage does reading, of the attentive sort practiced in the interpretive humanities, give you on life? Does such reading represent or produce an ethics? The question was posed for many in the humanities by the “Torture Memos” released by the Justice Department a few years ago, presenting arguments that justified the
use of torture by the U.S. government with the most twisted, ingenious, perverse, and unethical interpretation of legal texts. No one trained in the rigorous analysis of poetry could possibly engage in such bad-faith interpretation without professional conscience intervening to say: This is not possible.

Teaching the humanities appears to many to be an increasingly disempowered profession–and status–within American culture. Yet training in the ability to read critically the messages with which society, politics, and culture bombard us may be more necessary than ever in a world in which the manipulation of minds and hearts
is more and more what running the world is all about.

This volume brings together a group of distinguished scholars and intellectuals to debate the public role and importance of the humanities. Their exchange suggests that Shelley was not wrong to insist that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind: Cultural change carries everything in its wake. The attentive interpretive reading practiced in the humanities ought to be an export commodity to other fields and to take its place in the public the public sphere.

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