The Problem of the Humanities

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Eric Lund
    November 23, 2010

    This debate has been going on for decades, with more heat than light being generated.

    For people of my parents’ generation, companies often specifically didn’t want people with undergraduate degrees in business. They wanted something along the lines of a liberal [arts | sciences] degree for most employees, with maybe more of a science/engineering focus for jobs that required it, and economics/business courses were best taken as electives or in a subsequent masters degree program. That had changed by the time I was an undergraduate: majoring in business had become a viable path to a job in corporate America. Caplan implies that this is a good thing, and that the overwhelming majority of college students should major in business or economics. One can make an argument that our educational system isn’t doing a good job of preparing students for careers, but that isn’t the argument Caplan is making.

    The anti-foreign language position is just utterly nonsense. True, I don’t have a professional need for the Spanish I took in high school. But having learned Spanish I found it easier to subsequently learn German, which I do sometimes use in my work (prior to 1940 a large fraction of the scientific literature was published in that language), and to pick up bits of other languages as needed in my travels. You and Wilcox have done a good job demolishing most of the rest of Caplan’s piece.

  2. #2 Chad
    November 23, 2010

    The Brothers Karamazov was Dostoyevsky. Pedant mode off.

  3. #3 Chad Orzel
    November 23, 2010

    The Brothers Karamazov was Dostoyevsky. Pedant mode off.

    Aarrgh. I knew that.
    That was an editing glitch– I originally said “Tolstoy” and “War and Peace” but thought it would be snarkier to use the Brothers Karamazov, as it’s one of the works Petsko cites. so I rewrote it to change the work, and forgot to change the author.

    It’s fixed now.

  4. #4 quasihumanist
    November 23, 2010

    Until we all have 10 iPhones, we can’t afford to spend money on all those impractical subjects.

    (Anyway, my point is that “desperate need for resources” is in the eye of the beholder.)

  5. #5 ArchAsa
    November 24, 2010

    I like your post and I agree with your critique of Petsko’s open letter where he equates science with inhumanity. It’s a stupid premise. But aren’t you guilty of a similar narrow-mindededness when you equate Humanities with impracticality? Are the humanities only a fun hobby for the rich and well-to-do? If so, it doesn’t serve any useful purpose.

    I do feel the humanities have real use – only its more profound than quoting dead old writers.

  6. #6 A. Pease
    November 24, 2010

    Let’s just use “Tolstoyevsky” and “The Brothers Karenina.” It’s all the same, anyway, all that old dead Russian stuff!

  7. #7 Jose Angel
    November 24, 2010

    I’m fully agree with the article. There is a point that I think should be highlighted, that humanistic knowledge is usually also owned by people of scientific type while the opposite is not true almost never. This could be because culture is easily learned by permeability, arts are inherent to human being and in order to learn history you need only some curiosity and a good collection of books. In the other hand most of people on humanistic topics show a rejection of anything that smacks to sciences, especially to hard sciences and its response is to take out the science of the culture world, which is a serious error.

    The thing is that this response against sciences, the easy one, has won the cold war between Science and Humanism, when in my opinion everything is Humanism. And as side effect, a bunch of scammers, healers, pseudo ecologist, etc… have taken advantage of the dispute mixing some scientific terms with some humanistic concepts and ultimately sell us things like global warming, magnetic bracelets or quantum metaphysics.
    The key could be to rejoin back Science and Humanism, even if for to do that we have redouble efforts in teaching Science, again, specially in hard sciences.
  8. #8 Chad Orzel
    November 24, 2010

    I like your post and I agree with your critique of Petsko’s open letter where he equates science with inhumanity. It’s a stupid premise. But aren’t you guilty of a similar narrow-mindededness when you equate Humanities with impracticality? Are the humanities only a fun hobby for the rich and well-to-do? If so, it doesn’t serve any useful purpose.

    I don’t think the “X is too useful. Really it is.” conversation is a road we really want to go down. That implicitly accepts the premise that things that are more useful are more worthy of study and funding, which leads directly to cutting less useful departments as a kind of triage.

  9. #9 Paul
    November 24, 2010

    Chad: “That implicitly accepts the premise that things that are more useful are more worthy of study and funding”

    I can’t believe you can actually disagree with that premise. It’s the absolute cornerstone of all resource allocation.

    The problems lie with quantifying the usefulness, and the fact that what is considered useful changes with time, but there cannot be any doubt whatsoever that “things that are more useful are more worthy of study and funding!”

    To think otherwise is to be completely irrational.

    If not for this principle science would hardly progress anywhere since there are infinitely many completely pointless pursuits that would be competing for funding, things like, say, establishing where each drop of rain actually fell and in what sequence, or which rocks look most appetizing during sunset and which during sunrise and how it varies with sex/race/whatever or how temperature in tropics correlates with the number of vowels in television ads, etc.

  10. #10 Bad Monkey
    November 24, 2010

    I’ve been a reader of your blog for some time now, and normally enjoyed it very much.

    But today I hate you.

    I had never before come across the particular piece by Mr. Caplan, yet you linked to it so I decided to review it. I could have gone forever without knowing of it and been quite content.

    Thank you, thank you so very much for having caused some of my brain cells to rebel the only way they could, suicide.

    Otherwise I very much enjoyed the post.

  11. #11 Vlad
    November 25, 2010

    Caplan did not say nobody should study art, music, or foreign languages, only that they are studied (by pupils and college students, not researchers!) way out of proportion to their actual use (practical or recreational). And let’s be honest – most college graduates will not remember what they learned and will not be really interested in the subjects.

    Second, it’s one thing to pay yourself for whatever education you want to get. But why should I (or you, for that matter) pay for someone else to study comparative German literature? It’s easy to say that society has the funds, because you personally bear so little of the costs. It’s also wrong – the onus is on you to show those funds don’t have a better application (and they most certainly do, although out of the possibilities available to politicians, funding pointless education is perhaps a good idea).

    It’s interesting how there are no economics blogs on scienceblogs. People really cringe at hearing those simple truisms.

  12. #12 Satanacio
    November 25, 2010

    Science is only human in a very very profound way e.g. what we see, predict and use is limited to what we, initially, sensed. Humanities are directly human, they deal with man, his suffering, his way of life; they can even change social attitudes to science. By saying humanities are impractical, you’re omitting the largest part of human history (an outrage, as I see it); it just can’t be told in terms of gadgets and differential equations. Take Christianity, for example… are you implying 2000 years of Christianity were truly molded by mere scientific progress? If you say “no”, then anything outside the realm of science and technology has made an impactl it has been practical.

    I’ll finish with a quote from a man you have probably heard of, I think he was a scientist or something: “Dostoevsky has given me more than any scientist”. His name was Albert Einstein.

  13. #13 Satanacio
    November 25, 2010

    I meant “social attitudes TOWARDS science”…

  14. #14 ObsessiveMathsFreak
    November 26, 2010

    Heh. That letter reminded me of this PhD comic.

  15. #15 Chad Orzel
    November 26, 2010

    Caplan did not say nobody should study art, music, or foreign languages, only that they are studied (by pupils and college students, not researchers!) way out of proportion to their actual use (practical or recreational).

    Which relies on the notion that the only reason to study any of the subjects on his list is because you plan to do it professionally. Which is stupid– it’s trivial to come up with examples where a little knowledge on one of the fields he disparages would be useful. Knowing something about, say, the history of the Middle East can help you distinguish between foreign policy proposals by candidates for national office. Knowing a little bit about physics and biology can help you avoid being taken in by scams relying on the magic power of magnets, and so on.

    Heh. That letter reminded me of this PhD comic.

    My favorite PhD comic from that particular series is this one, which also explains a lot of things I find frustrating in campus politics.

  16. #16 Vlad
    November 26, 2010

    If you want to learn about the ME or basic science, that’s simple – there are enough books, magazines, museums, podcasts, blogs and YouTube channels to cover any topic way beyond what one would consider as basic necessary general knowledge. They’re more interesting than formal college courses, cost substantially less and take considerably less time.

    There’s getting an education and there’s going to school, and while they can overlap, usually they don’t.

  17. #17 Eric Lund
    November 26, 2010

    If you want to learn about the ME or basic science, that’s simple – there are enough books, magazines, museums, podcasts, blogs and YouTube channels to cover any topic way beyond what one would consider as basic necessary general knowledge.

    The problem with that approach is that it relies on you already having a functional BS detector that will allow you to filter that material. Most people who have no background in a given field don’t have functional BS detectors, at least for that field. Charlatans know this, so they can poison the information stream with stuff that will fool laymen but not experts: creationism, perpetual motion machines, homeopathy and other medical nonsense, Saddam having the ability to nuke London, etc. Before you reply that all of the above are obvious nonsense: the point is that you have enough background knowledge to arrive at this conclusion, but Joe Sixpack, who knows only what his pastor and the talking heads on cable TV tell him, tends to fall for it.

  18. #18 Vlad
    November 26, 2010

    Eric,

    I agree that discerning experts is a problem. But in school you’re not taught to discern, but to listen to and repeat after folks whom you’re supposed to accept as experts (e.g. Prof. Chad Orzel). If you agree with this signal of expertise, you should be fine with public resources authored by said experts (e.g. How To Teach Physics To Your Dog). If not – how do you even know school teaches you the right stuff?

    You may argue that school does indeed teach you critical thinking and other meta-skills. Perhaps. But even Prof. Orzel agrees that if you want to teach critical thinking – just teach it, don’t go the roundabout way of discussing 19-th century Russian literature. That’s an orders-of-magnitude better return on investment.

  19. #19 CCPhysicist
    November 26, 2010

    I studied the humanities so I could recognize straw man arguments like that one by Caplan at a single glance. You rarely encounter that sort of argument in physics, and then usually only from a student trying to get a better grade.

    However, it wasn’t until the internet came along that I learned to recognize made up data concerning an utterly vague category such as “kids” (K-5? K-12? SLAC?) being used without a hint of logic. Might as well argue that spending 25% of your time on math is a waste because few are going to be mathematicians.

  20. #20 Whomever1
    November 27, 2010

    Vlad–the teaching of critical thinking in itself is called “Philosophy”, and is one of the humanities. However, the teaching of critical thought is easier and more rewarding when there is a lot of great and diverse ideas to work with.

  21. #21 yogi-one
    November 28, 2010

    Another great post by Chad. Just one nit-picky thing I want to point out:

    I think that science, broadly defined, is the most fundamental human activity there is.

    um…spoken like a true scientist, and, were I a student, this is definitely the side of the debate I’d want my science teacher to come down on.

    To paraphrase the famous Sgt Schultz from that old TV series Hogans Heroes (now there’s some Cultuah for ya!)
    Very interesting…but, unprovable!

    What is the most fundamental human activity?

    And this, just after it:

    You need science before you can have art or literature or any of the rest of the trappings of human civilization.

    This is classic chicken-and-egg.

    OK, disregarding truly essential biological functions that all life needs, assuming this is a kind of ‘what is unique and defining about the human species?’ question:

    I can’t find anything. Language? Nope other species have it.
    Tool making? Nope other species have it.
    Curiosity? Nope other species have it.
    Art? Nope other species have it.

    Written language? Mathematics? Ahh…there we may be onto something.

    But what are the drivers of those innovations? Does writing come from a humanistic drive to preserve cultural history? Does math stem from economic necessity, for example as an aid to trading?

    I think you’re on shakey ground to assume science is the most fundamental human activity.

    You can argue that all technology is some kind of science, but the counter-argument – that technology is designed to solve problems that aren’t necessarily science problems in the first place – is easy to make and impossible to disprove.

    It’s definitely one of the most fundamental human activities, because it is powered by one of the most fundamental human drives: curiosity. That argument I can go along with.

    On the uselessness argument: It needs to be thrown out entirely. It’s irrelevant. Who could have known in advance that knowing the speed of light was useful? Imagine if Einstein wrote a grant proposal saying he wanted to figure out the speed of light. The question comes: what on earth are going do even with it even if you can figure it out? The only honest answer would have been : I don’t know.

    End of funding. Next.

    In fact, I’m an advocate of what is arguably the single most useless human activity on the planet: Zen meditation.
    It doesn’t make any money. It doesn’t accomplish any work. It doesn’t pay any bills. Sitting silently doing nothing for long periods of time doesn’t get you any rewards. It doesn’t make you any friends. It doesn’t get you a date. It doesn’t help you reproduce. It doesn’t make any food. It doesn’t do anything.

    Arguably, Zen has offered nothing to the world. (OK, some could make the argument that the value is that Zen offers nothing to a world that is addicted to stuff.)

    But a world with no Zen, no Zen monks, no monasteries, no people sitting silently doing nothing?

    Nope, I say continue supporting the monasteries. The idea that they do nothing is irrelevant. I’d say the same for large chunks of the sciences, and the humanities as well.

    Are the sciences/humanities useful is a wrong question. By focusing on that issue, you cheat yourself out of all the ways they do enrich human existence.

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