The arts and humanities seem to always be in the heat of some sort of crisis. Those of us in the field feel this the most. Defunding is a consistent issue. But, the bigger issue is how things come to be defunded in the first place. Things that get defunded are things that the people in charge generally see as lacking importance. In here is the real crisis for the arts and humanities: the fields are often devalued by those in charge. The case is often such that if something’s value cannot be quantified (especially monetarily) then it deserves little attention and perhaps should not exist at all. But, just because some person in charge cannot see something on paper does not mean that it’s not there. Let me talk a bit now about the stuff that’s not always on paper but is certainly there, stuff that is more valuable than any amount of money.
I am the Artistic Director of the Literary Arts at the Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts in Southside Bethlehem. In my position, I am surrounded by the arts and humanities every second of every day. I know how important the fields are on a multiplicity of levels. But recently, the arts and humanities have been screaming at the top of their lungs in my classroom, demanding attention, proving to me their value in our classrooms and society more than ever.
I teach a course titled “The Responsibility of the Writer in Society: Politics of the Written Word.” The course gives students the opportunity to think about their purpose as writers, how they have come to have that purpose and their responsibility to society as writers who bear witness to our time. The students read a variety of texts across multiple genres from many places around the world. As we read these texts, I always ask the students to focus on what the author is bearing witness to, what the author’s responsibility is to bear witness, and why what the author is bearing witness to demands the world’s attention. Our current studies have taken us to Afghanistan as we are reading Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. A discussion we had in class a few weeks ago not only speaks to Hosseini’s genius as a writer but also shows me why the arts and humanities are more valuable to our society than ever before.
A Thousand Splendid Suns is a gut-wrenchingly beautiful tale that centers largely on two women named Mariam and Laila as their private lives reflect the political turmoil in Afghanistan. The novel forces readers to think critically about foreign policy, tradition, religion, culture, gender roles, and violence just to name a few of the important topics. The important conversation we had a few weeks ago centered on many of these topics. But, what my students connected these topics to is where the magic lies in the arts and humanities.
My students connected the abuse suffered by Mariam and Laila at the hands of their husband and family members to instances of abuse in their own lives. My students connected the strict gender roles imposed on the women in the novel to the #MeToo movement. They said America was not much different. My students connected the vision of Tariq, a young boy in the novel at the time, wielding his assault rifle as a symbol of masculinity and power, to the gun control issues that have yet again been brought to the forefront of the American stage in the wake of the shooting in Parkland, Florida. In short, my students began to see many of the issues in the novel as not unique to Afghanistan. They began to see them as American issues, too; they began to see them as issues of humanity as a whole.
And, this is why the arts and humanities demand our attention. This is why the fields cannot be defunded and devalued. This was a discussion born out of art. And, it was more obvious to me than ever that it was through Hosseini’s art object that my students were finding ways to process their realities. Through the novel, students were finding ways to work through their personal obstacles and think critically about our nation’s social and political obstacles.
I don’t know how much money my sophomores are going to make in the future. I don’t know how much money they are going to make for someone else, which, again, is where our society likes to look before deeming something valuable. But, what I do know is that my students are going to be better people for having had that conversation. They will make better-informed decisions about how they treat people, how they allow themselves to be treated, and how to deal with the harsh realities of our world through our discussions about A Thousand Splendid Suns. All of this will come through discussing a piece of art.
And, now I ask you: what can be more valuable than the notion of being self-aware, especially in our world today? When I have discussions with my students like the one I had a few weeks ago, it becomes clear to me that the arts and humanities should not just be valued. In many ways, as evidenced by my classroom discussion, we must understand that our lives depend on the arts and humanities. They might be the only pathway to some semblance of personal truth. Is there anything more important than keeping this pathway available?