Why We Need the Humanities

In the heady progressive years of the early 20th century, few things were more alluring than the promise of scientific knowledge. In a world struggling with rapid industrialization, massive immigration, and chaotic urban growth, science and technology seemed to offer solutions to almost every problem. Newly created state colleges and universities devoted themselves almost entirely to scientific, technological, and engineering fields. Many Americans came to believe that scientific certainty could solve not only scientific problems, but could also reform politics, government, and business. Two world wars and a Great Depression rocked the confidence of many people that scientific expertise alone could create a prosperous and ordered world. In the aftermath of World War II, the academic world turned with new enthusiasm to humanistic studies, which seemed to many scholars the best way to ensure the survival of democracy and to resist tyranny. American scholars fanned out across much of the world—with support from the Ford Foundation, the Fulbright program, and the U.S. Information Agency—to promote the teaching of literature and the arts in an effort to make the case for democratic freedoms.

In the America of our own time, the great educational challenge has become an effort to strengthen the teaching of what is now know as the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math). There is considerable and justified concern that the United States is falling behind much of the rest of the developed world in these essential disciplines. India, China, Japan, and other regions seem to be seizing technological leadership.

At the same time, perhaps inevitably, the humanities—while still popular in elite colleges and universities—have experienced a significant decline. Humanistic disciplines are seriously underfunded, not just by the government and the foundations but by academic institutions themselves. Humanists are usually among the lowest-paid faculty members at most institutions and are often lightly regarded because they do not generate grant income and because they provide no obvious credentials for most nonacademic careers.

There is no doubt that American education should be training more scientists and engineers and should be teaching scientific literacy to everyone else. Much of the hand-wringing among politicians about the state of American universities today is focused on the absence of "real world" education—which to a large degree means preparation for professional and scientific careers. But the idea that institutions or their students must decide between humanities and science is false. Our society could not survive without scientific and technological knowledge. But we would be equally impoverished without humanistic knowledge as well. Science and technology teach us what we can do. Humanistic thinking can help us understand what we should do.

The humanities are not simply vehicles of aesthetic reward and intellectual inspiration, as valuable as those purposes are. Science and technology aspire to clean, clear answers to problems (as elusive as those answers might be). The humanities address ambiguity, doubt, and skepticism—essential underpinnings in a complex and diverse society and a turbulent world.

It is not surprising that many of our greatest scientists are also deeply committed to humanistic knowledge and values. Nor should it be surprising that many humanistic fields find scientific tools essential to their work. At my own university, all undergraduates must take a rigorous humanities core, but they are also required to develop scientific skills and literacy. Many liberal-arts institutions have developed similar curricular goals. Among academics, scientists and humanists not only coexist, but often collaborate. It is mostly in the politics of education that debates over the relative value of these different disciplines take place.

It is almost impossible to imagine our society without thinking of the extraordinary achievements of scientists and engineers in building our complicated world. But try to imagine our world as well without the remarkable works that have defined our culture and values. We have always needed, and we still need, both.

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