The great filmmaker Frank Capra once spoke of the duty of the film director.
The filmmaker speaks to an audience alone in the dark for two hours. This is a great power and the filmmaker has the responsibility to leave his audience better off for having seen his film.
Film, like all art, speaks to the soul and reshapes the soul in its image. That's why we have to attend to our culture, to make sure that we are shaping healthy rather than distorted souls.
Philosopher Leo Strauss compared education to cultivation. After all, culture grows human beings just as agriculture grows plants. That's why we call a well-educated person cultured or cultivated.
When we tend our gardens, we don't just throw any piece of garbage on our plants. If we want them to grow healthy we are careful to make sure they are in a healthy environment. The same is true with people. We don't feed their souls just any old garbage.
This is why education in arts and literature is crucial in educating the young. Music, theater and great literature shapes their souls with the best that our civilization has to offer.
Imagine a young person who can appreciate the complexity of a Bach choral work or who can lose himself a novel by Mark Twain. Wouldn't we want our young people genuinely moved by a painting by Monet or a Shakespearean soliloquy? The same student can probably be transported by Kipling's poetry or feel the excitement of Churchill's histories.
C.S. Lewis commented that among his students he found their souls were more deserts to be irrigated, not jungles to be cleared. The problem was not that they felt too much, but that they felt too little. Modern man, his education geared toward creating nothing but workers fit for a modern economy, often neglects educating our young into that which actually makes life worthwhile.
We often look and the arts and humanities as luxuries. This is especially odd coming from so-called conservatives who sometimes deride these subjects because of their lack of economic utility. But what precisely are we conserving if not our culture and civilization? And if the arts are important to the cultivation of our souls, thus the cultivation of virtue, should not those who worry about cultural decline advocate hardest for the promotion of the best in the arts?
Our educational system puts a great deal of emphasis on the STEM subjects, i.e., science, technology, engineering and mathematics. These are the subjects that drive innovation and economic productivity.
Would you give money to someone you know will use it to buy drugs? Then what use is it to pass on riches to a civilization that lacks the virtue or greatness of soul to use those riches well?
For the artist, it is imperative that they use their talents to enrich our lives with works of beauty. So we shouldn't patronize artists who dwell on the vulgar and deaden our ability to appreciate beauty. For the rest of us, we must support, financially and otherwise, efforts to cultivate our souls. Let's make sure our souls are cultivated well, not with garbage.
Jon D. Schaff is professor of political science at Northern State University in Aberdeen. The views are his and do not represent those of Northern State University.