Humanities disciplines give us the cultural tools and human stories to cope with the COVID-19 epidemic, but does anyone want those lessons? History, literature, religion and art all have insights for the ongoing coronavirus epidemic in Utah and the United States. However, I see public fora dominated by the bigotry and partisanship a humanities education should disallow. As much as we rely on STEM disciplines to fight the coronavirus, we must also lean on the humanities to think clearly and to act sincerely in times of crisis.
Here are some questions humanities thinkers have been exploring for 2,000 years: What obligations do the wealthy owe the poor? How does individual behavior bear on public well-being? Is there some authority who can tell me to stay in when I want to go out? Literature, religion, history and philosophy all engage these nuanced questions — but our public discourse shuns nuance in favor of politicized confirmation bias.
I hoped this crisis would raise our standards, but I turn on the television and it seems cable news has morphed into opinion chatter drowning out informed testimony. America threatens its common bonds — the same “social contract” that shaped our constitution — with demonizing rhetoric from the left and the right. In our national crisis, this cultural condition confuses us and collects us into cabals ... even though we know better.
Still, there’s hope. One way we know better is through the lessons of the humanities. Let’s look back to another plague year. In 1665, Samuel Pepys’ “Diary” describes London’s Great Plague: April, “Great fears of the sickeness here in the City … God preserve us all;” May, “All the newes is of the plague growing upon us in this towne; and of remedies against it; some saying one things, some another.” London’s struggles with misinformation reflect our own tension when national leaders disagree about a fact-based response to the virus besetting us all. The humanities teach students to assess claims and to weigh opinions amidst the conflicting testimonies of showmen and charlatans. These tools for balanced reasoning can resist divisive broadcasts and partisan blaming.
Inequalities in wealth and access to care have always made epidemics worse. Look to the literature of plagues for aristocrats comfortable in country palaces while their poor subjects perish in squalid towns. In “The Masque of the Red Death,” Edgar Allen Poe shows a party of the wealthy enjoying a masquerade ball far from a spreading plague. They’ve bolted the windows and welded the doors against the poor. However, infection comes for them all in the form of one gruesomely costumed guest. There can be, Poe suggests, no ethical or epidemiological escape from the shared condition of our community.
There is some good news. Literature can pin the selfish to their sins, and likewise it can celebrate tolerance and generosity. In Geraldine Brooks’ “A Year of Wonders,” Derbyshire villagers unite to quarantine themselves. They are flawed and they are scared, but in this one right choice the novel makes us hopeful people might respond to contagion with concern for others. Much like Brooks’ fictional village in England, Utah would like to do the right thing to contain the coronavirus, and perhaps it’s helpful to see that others before us have endured hardship for the greater, longer good.
Edward Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” describes a once great republic choking on its own greed and self-regard. Caring about the humanities’ difficult truths may not be easy, but it reminds us that those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it.
Jeffrey McCarthy is the director of environmental humanities at the University of Utah.