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The Humanities in the Digital Age

by Mark Peres

September 6,2007

The seed was planted early in life as I listened to my dad tell stories of 19th century Jewish merchants who emigrated from Gibraltar to the Amazon and gave rise to law, engineering and operatic music in the heart of the jungle. The seed was tended by public school teachers in New York who read T.S. Eliot and Catholic nuns in Rio de Janeiro who played the music of The Beatles on acoustic guitar. The seed flowered in college where I became friends with professors who worked in small offices that had bookshelves weighted with thousands of books. The seed is a love for the humanities – our treasure trove of learning that gives clues to what it means to live.

The humanities address all the great questions – from why are we here to what to make of pride and despair. The humanities are first the classics – the study of the founding ideas of the major cultures of the world – and second the disciplines that reveal our legacy and promise as humans. These disciplines are history, philosophy, religion, language, literature and the visual and performing arts. The whole body of these works challenges our earthly vanities to our core – as the skull of poor Yorick did to Hamlet. They howl at angelheaded hipsters who burn for ancient heavenly connections. And they give hope to skywalking heroes in the face of deathstars.

In a brief history of time the humanities were the basis of a broad education for citizens. Not only did the study of the humanities initiate us into the wisdom of the tribe, but imparted the skills we needed to hunt, gather and navigate well. In reading Homer and Heraticlus, in considering Hume and Schopenhauer, in listening to Mozart and McCartney, we play in light and shadow, we swim in gray seas, and scale blooming taxonomies of learning. We are imparted shamanistic powers to think critically and to persuade spirits loose in the world – forever adept and adaptable.

Therein is our gift to each other – the humanities as mythic wings.

Yet a new age has broken upon us. A quite different age. An age of blue-green digital news and information, of vocational training and scantron testing, of instant messaging that is not instant enough. Bookshelves have given way to computer screens. We are fixed on the heroin immediacy of modern technologies and internet speeds of communication. We are fixed on vast, repetitive, thumb-typing, blue-tooth consumption. We are fixed on a facebook of networking that is coital and promiscuous. It is Moore’s law ascendant. It threatens deferred and considered forms of communication such as the humanities. And it leaves us – without further bearing – adolescent, adrift and vacuous.

What to do when the consequences of choice are now so profound?

Jungian theory reveals an opportunity. Jung asserted that people ‘self-realize’ by individuating – a gradual integration and unification of self through the resolution of successive layers of psychological conflict. He argued that growth occurs through a dialectic process called the ‘transcendent function’ – or the birthing of new realities arising out of the reconciliation of opposites. Without the transcendent function – or synthesis into a new stage – there is no individuation. The role of the therapist is to help a synthesis happen.

One opportunity of leadership is to perform the transcendent function. It is seeing opposing forces in society at work and birthing a new reality. It is a new birth of freedom. It is having a dream. It is truth and reconciliation.

We seek to do that here – in a no less ambitious way – in combining the humanities with interactive media to enhance community. We want to bring considered thought to digital speed. We want to bring the collected wisdom of the tribe to harnessed lightning. We want to do it from the ground up, benefiting from the broad-based talents of our citizenry and the best empowering attributes of the Internet. In bringing the inheritance of the ages to the technological advance of our time, we seek to re-set the game.

One way to civic significance is to ask for the highest and best in ourselves. And to ask it for something greater than ourselves. In so doing, we create the more vital community we desire.

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