Give Me a Novel, a Play, a Poem

The pandemic has shown, and will continue to show, how important the humanities are to the major questions a society must ask during a time like this.

Sarah Cole
June 26, 2020

This is part of a Columbia News series, titled Lessons Learned, which invites the Columbia community to reflect on the pandemic and the insights, personal and professional, they have gained from their COVID-19 experience. These essays speak to the innovation, creativity and resourcefulness we have witnessed during this period of unprecedented challenge, as well as some of the silver linings in the actions we have had to take by necessity.

It has been a difficult time for the humanities nationwide. With funding and new academic jobs already in a precarious state, the pandemic has brought these to a standstill. Many fear that it will be years, if ever, before these disciplines can rebound, with great jobs for our graduate students, support for our courses and our projects and a larger sense of the value of a humanistic education.

At the same time, one thing the COVID crisis has shown is that the humanities are more vital than ever. The intellectual work of our disciplines allows us to see how health, disease and collective life are inseparable categories, tying together, as they always have, foundational forces in human life and aspiration. I have been inspired by how quickly and forcefully our faculty and students have seen the applicability of the pandemic to their work, and the centrality of their work to understanding the pandemic.

Within weeks of the start of the crisis, colleagues at Columbia began to focus on issues as diverse as the importance of physical assembly for religious practice, and the perceived conflict between these traditions and public health; the history of pandemics in relation to theater, in which whole theatrical cultures have been lost in the wake of disease; and the way the language and ideology of warfare can significantly characterize the collective response to public health.

There is a widespread sense, too, that the work we study in the humanities—including art, literature, religion, philosophy and language—will offer special access to the human and shared experience of illness and its social effects. The very nature of human connectivity itself has taken on new meaning, and the expressions that make up a culture give profound insight into how we exist as individuals and as members of different communities.

Novels, poems and plays from 100 or 1,000 years ago about plague; music that explores the need for healing or for protest; works of art and architecture that express or encompass physical suffering and contact: These are just a tiny sampling of the kinds of humanistic artifacts that many have turned to anew, or for the first time, as we try to make sense of our present circumstances. And, of course, the humanities help us to think about the nature of inequality, racism and the consequences of social difference in very ingrained ways, as this pandemic, and all that has occurred in recent weeks since the death of George Floyd, has shown we must do.

There are few silver linings in the heavy clouds over us now, but I do think the humanities have shown, and will continue to show, how important our work is to the major questions a society must ask during a time like this. Humanists are stepping up to write, exhibit, discuss and teach, displaying creativity and sensitivity, with a newfound reminder that what we study is entirely interconnected with how we will get through this pandemic—and what kind of intellectual, cultural and social worlds we will build in its wake.

Sarah Cole is Humanities Dean and Parr Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia.