How the Death of the Humanities Will Kill Science

The humanities don’t just tell is what we shouldn’t be doing. They help us figure out what we should be doing instead.

Science is killing the humanities—I was not the first to argue this point and I probably will not be the last either. America’s leaders are hastening the death, both by the priorities they set and the political appointments that they make. While many scholars will probably lament the passing of the humanities and some will probably cry “Philistine” with every dollar that the National Endowment for the Arts loses, some have already begun to stoically accept the argument that the humanities are not worth saving. In a representative piece, John Ellis writes of the decline:

Freshman core courses that gave an overview of the achievements of Western culture were . . . abolished almost everywhere, mandatory courses in this nation’s history and institutions went too, and literature departments even stopped requiring that Shakespeare be an essential part of the English literature major. Even when formerly mandatory courses are still offered as options, they are often presented through the lens of a jaundiced view of our cultural past that tends to discourage further study.

Ellis identifies a real trend, even though it is not entirely fair—reading Shakespeare might not be required as an English lit major, but the English lit major who graduates without having read Shakespeare will have had to performed a near Herculean task to avoid Hamlet, Othello or Macbeth.

However, even if the humanities departments—in their current state—will not be missed, Ellis does not answer the question of whether the humanities, as they should be taught, are still worth preserving. He may not have an answer, but I would give a resounding “Yes.” Today we might see the sciences are killing the humanities, but tomorrow we will find out that the death of the humanities will kill the sciences too.

I did not fully appreciate that the humanities were a necessary supplement to the sciences until a few years ago. It happened at a conference on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education where America’s foremost experts on the subject came together to wring their hands over how doomed we all were because there “weren’t enough students interested in science.” Some of the speakers had impressive credentials: one of the speakers was Dean Kamen, the man who invented the Segway; another was Bill Nye, the Science Guy.

Nonetheless, as I participated in the focus groups, I got a sense that America’s science educators were strangely disconnected from the way that people live and think. Most of the policy recommendations that they came up with sounded platitudinous: “We need to change the cultural image people have of the nerdy scientist.” Some of the policies or initiatives proposed were even less realistic: An American version of Doctor Who perhaps?

But, more broadly, the problem with these events is their objective of “maintaining the pipeline” to help  bring about the replacements for today’s current STEM employees.  As the administrators and officials lamented how “American kids were not interested in the science jobs we have for them” I could not help but be reminded of a passage in Heart of Darkness that William Deresiewicz originally called my attention to:

He was a common trader, from his youth up employed in these parts—nothing more. He was obeyed, yet he inspired neither love nor fear, nor even respect. He inspired uneasiness. That was it! Uneasiness. Not a definite mistrust—just uneasiness—nothing more. You have no idea how effective such a . . . a . . . faculty can be. He had no genius for organizing, for initiative, or for order even. . . . He had no learning, and no intelligence. His position had come to him—why? . . . He originated nothing, he could keep the routine going—that’s all. But he was great. He was great by this little thing that it was impossible to tell what could control such a man. He never gave that secret away.

As Deresiewicz points out, this is pretty much a perfect description of what bureaucracy is like:  It is filled with people who maintain the status quo, but not the people who defined what the status quo would be. This is not to say that the people at the conference were bureaucrats; some of them were entrepreneurial or accomplished—they had to be to get where they were. But they essentially wanted to train the next generation to fill the exact roles and have the exact knowledge that they had themselves.

That is not the way the world works. The problems of tomorrow are always different than the problems of today and the solutions that work today are not going to answer all of the issues that will arise over the next decade. Adapting to tomorrow can only be done from living in society itself. This is because the tired adage that “necessity is the mother of invention” is true and the more people need (or think they need), the more they will invent.

There are plenty of societies that have—or used to have—education systems that were almost exclusively dedicated to training students for science and engineering. China does this now, just as the Soviet Union did in its own time. But, despite how fashionable it is to claim that a dearth of math and science skills endanger our future, this has not proved true in the past. Japan has consistently ranked highly in academic achievement but the country’s economic performance has not reflected these successes.

Educators and technocrats incorrectly believe that we know or have thought of everything that we need for the next economic boom or scientific revolution. It is just a matter of giving the next generation the answers that we already have.  But it is less important to train people how to get to the next frontier as it is to educate them so that they will be able to discern what frontiers are worth going to. Theoretically, this is what a liberal arts education is for. In practice, it is not always true. The SS had its share of PhD’s and, on a more mundane level, humanities departments have tended toward groupthink during the past generation in ways that have probably not enhanced students’ critical thinking skills or creativity.

But even if the liberal arts no longer serve their traditional purpose, that does not mean that it is not a purpose which is worth serving. The chief value of a liberal arts education is that it encourages debate and disagreement. Unlike mathematics, there is rarely an answer to the question that is clearly correct. Unlike the natural sciences, there is not the trend toward a greater approximation of the truth. Some statements about art or literature are truer than others, but there is never any one perspective that will serve indefinitely. This is not because the “best which has been thought and said” has changed over time; rather, the world has. Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein cannot tell us definitely what we should think of scientism or posthumanism, but they at least force us to confront the darker corners of enlightenment toward which we are reluctant to caste our eyes.

But the humanities can do more than help us understand what we should not be doing. They can help us contemplate what we should be doing instead. We might be a long way from the classical world which separate the liberal arts (artes liberales) from the technical arts (artes serviles) according to whether or not one was free or a slave. But the liberal arts are still indispensable to the extent that they foster intellectual curiosity and the desire to learn for its own sake. The sciences can do this also and few scientists ever achieve an important milestone without the ability to think creatively, but science educators do not always understand the implications of the field in which they want to educate; if they believe that they can provide all the education that people need for the future, they have already failed. Ideas are not an instrument for the future but they are objectives worthy of pursuit for their own sake.

Education initiatives are usually about one silver bullet policy or another, whether it is a national curriculum or vouchers or putting younger enthusiastic teachers in classrooms. But fostering intellectual curiosity is not something that can be easily put into a policy or a curriculum. It depends on more than this; it depends on the culture of the school and the values of the students and instructors. But no educator should begin to craft policy without recognizing that the next technological revolution will not come from people who always have the right answer; it will come from people whom learning has endowed with enough intellectual curiosity to feel comfortable when they get the wrong one.

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