And why the humanities suck
Monday night, my partner and I watched a video on YouTube about Celtic druids and who they really were. He and I have gotten really into YouTube history channels lately, and we initially thought, “Hell yes. Ancient wizards.”
I wasn’t expecting to feel a familiar chill down my spine in the first few moments of the video.
The first thing you learn is that we know little about druids, and almost all of what we know comes from Roman sources.
The problem with this is Rome wanted to do away with the druids. And in the video, a reason given is because druids and Romans disagreed on how land ownership should work. Rome thought a person or state could lay claim to pieces of land, while the druids took a communal approach. Basically, what we know about druids is largely distorted by Roman propaganda and isn’t reliable.
However, we know enough to know they weren’t long white-bearded wizards. In fact, women were druids too. The image we have of a druid is mythical and supernatural, which seems cool today!
The video never says this directly, but they were humanists. They were in charge of passing down stories to make sure they stayed alive. And because druids viewed their stories as powerful and dangerous in the wrong hands, they were never written. All druids learned the stories by heart.
Druids were teachers, scholars, and lawyers. Storytellers. They weren’t really associated with religion much at all. They kept their society grounded, which makes the modern image of druids particularly chilling. Because it means the propaganda worked. We don’t know who druids were, and we think of them as magic and fiction. And I think that partially answers the question of what problem Romans had with druids. I say partially because we’ll never know for sure, and in all likelihood, there’s over one right answer.
That said, this doesn’t make the druid class in D&D bad, or that you should feel guilty for druids being your favorite class or for writing a magic druid in a fantasy story! Don’t trash the character you spent hours creating!
Present-day “Druidry” is hidden behind a paywall that may put you tens of thousands of dollars into debt. It goes by the name “humanities,” and before I spend the rest of this article trashing them, I want to disclose I majored in English and anthropology. I love the humanities, but that doesn’t mean I like them.
When I took both majors, I couldn’t explain what the point was. I flipped between them both several times and ended up taking both. I ascribed it to my ADHD brain — curious about everything. And maybe it was, but today, I think it was the best decision I ever made because I studied what gets written and what doesn’t. It wasn’t until my last literature class I realized how important that was.
And that was for one reason: I hated my last literature class. I hated my last literature class so much that it could be considered my supervillain origin story. I hated it with a hatred that stained everything I’ve written ever since.
It all started when the professor told the entire class the first exam would be easy.
And then it wasn’t. On purpose. It was the only exam in college I failed.
I loved almost every professor up to this point and even had one who encouraged us to poke fun at him because we should feel able to question authoritative figures. (The same professor personally apologized to me for calling my hedgehog a ferret one day.)
This last professor was the final boss my high school teachers warned me about. And did I fight him?
Telling us that the test would be easy, giving us an idea of what would be on it, and then making the test nothing like that was enough for me to stomp into his office to politely ask what the hell happened.
I don’t remember the answer in its entirety, but I remember being reassured that the rest of the tests were totally different, and the first test didn’t affect much of our final grade. The first test was deliberately difficult for no other reason than to trick us. By the time I realized that, I didn’t care about the “why.” The “why” didn’t matter. Many of us were going into debt for these credit hours, or working, or had kids. You don’t trick students to put their guards down. No matter the reason, it was a waste of time, energy, and money. I don’t recall we ever got a chance to do class reviews, so if that professor ever sees this article, good.
The rest of the tests were manageable, as promised. But the entire class was a love story to the modern Western literary canon. Every single book we read was by a cishet white man. If I recall correctly, we only read one or two poems by white women, but nothing by Black, Native, or other marginalized writers. This class was about literature during and after World War One, and we heard minimal perspective from anyone who wasn’t white and fighting in the trenches or upper-middle class. There was nothing by Japanese Americans in the internment camps. This was my last semester, so I couldn’t drop it. I couldn’t read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man without seething.
The only things I’ll willingly read by James Joyce are his kinky sex letters to his future wife (who was completely consenting). Believe me when I say they are both NSFW and better than everything else he wrote.
This is where my anthropology major comes in. That class would not have pissed me off nearly as much if I wasn’t trained to notice what wasn’t there. I was lucky enough that the rest of my literature professors attempted to include a variety of different voices from the time. Especially with the professor who encouraged us to count every time he said the phrase “this is crucial” after he realized we were doing it. (He had a very distinctive style too, and a class he had later decided they were all going to dress up like him one day. I wish I was there. If that professor sees this, I want to let him know he had a crucial impact on how I read literature today.)
But that doesn’t change that as they exist today, the humanities define what language is and isn’t important or worth listening to.
What is considered intelligent writing is full of unfamiliar words and jargon that make it inaccessible to anyone who isn’t trained to read it. Forget actually enjoying the work. The most unrealistic thing in Matilda was that she actually enjoyed Moby Dick. If I didn’t have the means to get a humanistic education, I might have spent my entire life thinking I was stupid for not wanting to finish A Tale of Two Cities.
The skills learned in the humanities are vital in our society. Critically thinking about what we read, relating to the world around us, empathy, etc. We need those skills.
But simply funding humanities departments isn’t the answer. This doesn’t address the amount of debt students, particularly poor students, would need to go into. This doesn’t address how white male voices are prioritized in humanities departments. This doesn’t address the outdated high school English curriculum in the US.
This does not change that by prioritizing “grammatically proper English” in the humanities, we reinforce power structures that silence voices in different dialects and languages. And worse, we are defining stories to create characters that suit an imperialist hierarchy. We're forgetting the entire point by defining what is “bad” and “good” literature.
We need to study posts on social media. We need to study stories written in AAVE. We need to study writing by writers who learn English as a second language. We need to study stories written in completely “improper” English.
It isn’t just that marginalized voices are silenced, but how violent language online isn’t taken seriously because we perceive the writers as “uneducated” and “just trying to get a reaction.” The consequences have proven to be deadly.
The largely young white male cohort that spends their days making death threats online get called “trolls” rather than terrorists, and conspiracy theorists peddling false and incendiary narratives are labeled kooks rather than dangers.
Cassondra Hanna captures this beautifully in her article, No We Are Not Living in a “Third-World” Country:
However, to paint the extremists as angry and petulant and their violence as spontaneous is not the assault on their character that one might think. Such characterizations actually serve to absolve them of responsibility.
[L]anguage is powerful, and the language we use to define the world around us upholds inherent power structures.
When we define what language is and isn’t important, it upholds inherent power structures. When we build a narrative around groups of people and their stories to not take them seriously, we are the Romans to the druids.
The druids helped people understand the world around them. I can’t say if they taught critical thinking or not, but I’m willing to wager they did. Druids were public thinkers, and we need them. Obviously, without the “go into training for several years and learn important stories by heart” bit, but we need public thinkers and educators. And we need to listen to the ones who already exist, especially in marginalized communities.
Even though the mainstream concept of a druid is totally and completely wrong and defined by people who wanted to wipe them out, it has kept them extant. As long as we have myths about druids, however inaccurate, they’re alive and can be studied. As long as there is writing, there is a chance to do better at reading it.
We need to get away from the idea that you need a degree for your ideas and thoughts to be taken seriously. We need to take writing, all writing, seriously. I don’t mean serious as in boring. I mean serious as in open to evaluation and consideration.
I’m sure the druids were elitist, too. But given that they believed in a more communal approach to land ownership versus land needing to be claimed is evidence they didn’t view themselves as owning information either. Druids knew the power of stories, and so did the Romans.
If you are privileged enough to have a higher humanities degree, you have a responsibility to make your work accessible.
Be the druid you wish to see in the world. Our future may depend on it.