I’ve probably gotten a dozen pointers to Gregory Petsko’s open letter in support of the humanities, addressed to the President of SUNY-Albany, over the last couple of weeks (the link is to a reposting of the letter at Inside Higher Ed; it was originally on Petsko’s own blog). I haven’t linked to it or commented on it here, mostly because while I’m broadly sympathetic with his position, after the second use of “[Famous Writer] said [interesting thing] which I’m sure your department of [humanities field] could tell you about, if you hadn’t eliminated them,” my reaction had shifted significantly toward “Oh, blow it out your ass, you pompous buffoon,” and it didn’t get much better. Also,if it’s really true that, as he writes:
Of all the courses I took in college and graduate school, the ones that have benefited me the most in my career as a scientist are the courses in classics, art history, sociology, and English literature. These courses didn’t just give me a much better appreciation for my own culture; they taught me how to think, to analyze, and to write clearly. None of my science courses did any of that.
then his science teachers did him a grave disservice.
The basic topic is kind of in the air at the moment, though, and given the arrival today of this response from a humanities professor and this prize piece of idiocy, I’ve ended up thinking about it in the sort of way that won’t stop until I type out a blog post on the subject. Thus, this.
As I said above, and as you can probably deduce from the fact that I both attended and work at small liberal arts colleges, I am sympathetic with Petsko’s pro-humanities position, if not his presentation. That said, though, I do have some problems with this line of argument.
The argument, stripped of most of the snottier verbiage, basically boils down to this paragraph from near the end of the piece:
One of the things I’ve written about is the way genomics is changing the world we live in. Our ability to manipulate the human genome is going to pose some very difficult questions for humanity in the next few decades, including the question of just what it means to be human. That isn’t a question for science alone; it’s a question that must be answered with input from every sphere of human thought, including — especially including — the humanities and arts. Science unleavened by the human heart and the human spirit is sterile, cold, and self-absorbed. It’s also unimaginative: some of my best ideas as a scientist have come from thinking and reading about things that have, superficially, nothing to do with science.
I’m always uncomfortable with this argument, because it suggests that science is inherently inhuman, and that the humanities are somehow more fundamental to human nature than science. I really dislike this, as I’ve explained at length before. I think that science, broadly defined, is the most fundamental human activity there is. You need science before you can have art or literature or any of the rest of the trappings of human civilization.
I think the attitude that science is inhuman is one of the biggest problems we have as a society. It’s what allows educated people to be proudly innumerate, and that, in turn, is at the root of many of the scientific and political crises we face. If people had a better understanding of science and how it works, they’d be less likely to fall for quack medicine, dishonest climate science, and the rest of the pseudo-scientific ills that plague us.
I also share some of the skepticism expressed by Kirstin Wilcox about the real practical impact of the humanities that Petsko is arguing for. In a way, this is the humanities version of the spin-off technology argument used to argue for funding things like the Large Hadron Collider. If the real practical benefit of the LHC is going to be improved knowledge of working with superconductors on a large scale, as you often hear claimed, then we would be better off putting $10 billion into making, say, a system of superconducting power lines, or a maglev train system, or something else practical. Likewise, if the real goal is to understand the ethical implications of biotechnology, then we should spend money on studying the ethical implications of biotechnology, not, say, eighteenth-century Russian literature.
Of course, too much of that line of thinking leads directly to the highly refined stupidity of Bryan Caplan’s post, in which he declares that it’s a waste of time for students to study art, music, literature, poetry, history, social science, foreign languages, and natural sciences. I’m not sure there’s anything left for them to study, after all that, so I suppose we might as well go back to putting seven-year-olds to work in textile mills.
So why should we study the humanities? Because it’s what we do, and because we can.
The two defining traits of human civilization, from well before the dawn of recorded history, are science and art. We define prehistorical cultures in terms of their technology– what kind of spear points they used, what kind of pottery they made– and their art– how they decorated those pots, what objects they made from the animals they killed with their spears. As a species, we have always studied nature and worked to improve on it, and painted pictures and told stories. That’s what we do, and there’s no reason to stop doing it.
And we can afford to study and modify nature on scales unimaginable to our ancestors, without really breaking a sweat. The Large Hadron Collider is hugely expensive relative to an individual income, but it’s pocket change for our civilization. $10 billion is about 0.07% of the GNP of the United States, and the European Union collectively (which is more directly responsible for CERN) isn’t far behind. That’s about the equivalent of $34 for a household with the median US income, or less than $0.10/day, if you spent it all in one year.
We should fund the study of science and of the humanities because we have the resources to do so. We’re not some edge-of-starvation subsistence farming civilization. We don’t need every able-bodied adult human on the planet to be engaged in the single-minded pursuit of food and shelter. We can do better than that.
And we should study those things because we want to. You don’t study particle physics because you want to get rich, you study it because you find it an interesting puzzle. And you don’t read Dostoyevsky because you think that years down the line you will score huge rhetorical points by busting out The Brothers Karamazov, you read it because you find it interesting. If you don’t find it interesting, you read something else. There is more great literature out there than any one person could read in a lifetime spent doing nothing but reading great literature. And there are plenty of fascinating scientific problems that don’t involve particle physics (despite what some particle physicists might say).
If an individual student is really his or her family’s only chance to escape poverty, then of course they shouldn’t major in Russian literature, or theoretical physics. They should do what it takes to get a degree that will land them a profitable job, and do it as quickly as possible. But if they have the personal and family resources to pursue something impractical that excites their interest, they should be able to do so.
And if we as a society had a desperate need of money or resources and couldn’t afford to fund universities that teach impractical subjects, then yeah, we should probably dump those subjects. But that’s not the society we live in– the State of New York is not exactly devoid of resources that could be used to fund humanities departments. The fact that we choose not to do so for silly and cynical political reasons is a sad commentary on our current culture.