A Not-Yet-Permanent Damage: Missing Humanities and Arts

A frustrated and stressed out student looks up at the high pile of textbooks he has to go through to do his homework.
A frustrated and stressed out student looks up at the high pile of textbooks he has to go through to do his homework.

Looking through the courses I've taken over the past few years in college, suddenly, I feel a deep worry. It is as if something is missing, but I couldn't locate the source. But, well, what could go wrong? Indeed, I've learn so much from diverse disciplines, in politics, economics, history, philosophy, logic, law, anthropology, and natural sciences.

Until these words in Darwin's autobiography drove home the message:

Up to the age of 30, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds... gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music...

My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive ... If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.

How painfully and honestly described! Darwin's deep regret finally reminded me what was missing in my course portfolio -- humanities and arts. I have confined my study exclusively to the "rational and analytical" departments of Western thinking, and have ignored the artistic and imaginative expression of human emotions and experience. How stupid of me to not notice this glaring hole until the last semester of college! How did this happen?

As I traced back in memory, I recalled the necessity out of which I chose my courses. I came to the United States to learn the "secrets" of the West's success -- its material achievement over the past three centuries. What forces propelled the advances of the industrial, imperial machines all over the globe? What logic continues to shape the landscape of the 21st century? What is the gap between East and West, traditional and modern?

Driven by these questions, I started out by studying politics and economics, thinking that by following money and power, I would reach the roots of the Western success. But, soon I realized that political and economic theories and events are merely the surface phenomena of more fundamental belief systems. So I turned my attention to history and philosophy.

Busy decoding the gene of Western industrial society, I allowed myself no leisure to dwell in the luxury of reading poetry, critiquing novels, playing with mud (sculpture), or playing with paint (painting). John Adams summed it up for me:

I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy... in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.

I thought of it as an acceptable trade-off, if not a willing sacrifice. And it would be fine if the study of "politics and war" has the same ethical and spiritual benefit of poetry and music. However, just as Darwin lamented his loss of "higher tastes" and its erosion of happiness and morality, I regret to report similar "atrophy" experienced first-hand.

By the third year of college, I have successfully trained my brain to become an analytical powerhouse, a reasoning machine that carries out deductive, logical, linear, scientific calculations, at lightening speed --- too fast for my soul to follow. The brain flew on auto-pilot, grabbing anything within its reach for analysis, day and night. I can't stop, can't sleep, and can't see the meaning of all this. It is as if a strange parasite of "rationality" has taken over my brain, siphoning off the vital life energy and humanness. It almost drove me into a depression.

I did acknowledge that along the line of scientific materialism and economic orthodoxy, there is endless potential for the accumulation of knowledge and capital. However, the principle of the accumulation is the same. It's like driving through an infinite dessert --- you know there's a long way to go, but the scenery is the same. What's more, knowledge is not wisdom; capital is not well-being. I asked myself: is this the limit of human capacity? Are we condemned to driving for eternity on this dessert highway? Can I break out of the box, and can I find wisdom and truth beyond?

The methodology is boring enough, but the real horror lies in the conclusions it produces. I was struggling with doctrines like "there is no intrinsic value other than economic value," or "there is no truth beyond scientific knowledge (never mind that scientific knowledge is nothing but not-yet-falsified hypothesis)," or "the individualistic pursuit of self-interests would solve all of society's problems, including poverty, pollution and war." These doctrines seem to derive so naturally from a few innocent assumptions, but there is no place for human feelings, for nature, and for their dignity. Without the antidote of humanities and arts, the "rational" systems have produced horrible sufferings and self-righteousness. Darwin was indeed very prophetic in saying that our moral character would be eroded "by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature."

After having spent three hardworking years to understand the dominant system, it is not easy to admit its ugliness. On one hand, I have (partially) succeeded at discovering the secrets of Western industrial society. On the other hand, I have realized that this system is an unsustainable and oppressive one --- nothing to be envious about. All the while, China and other developing countries have been trying their best to copy the Western model, fostering the same mentality, exacerbating the problem.

After much internal struggle, I finally let go. I accepted the bankruptcy of a system that I have invested so much in. Through meditation and reading Chinese classics, I have slowly reclaimed some humanity and sanity. It has brought back much of what is truly precious and worth living for.

Similarly, the modern industrial society also needs to embark on a journey of "redemption" and reorientation, partly (and crucially) by embracing the humanities and arts. The society as a whole might not yet be at the tipping point. But each of us can start to change. Through self-healing, we can heal the world. Write a poem. Plant a tree. Make some crafts. It's a long journey to recovery, but the good news is: the damage is not permanent. Not yet.