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STEM and the Humanities: a False Dichotomy

2013 Graduate College Distinguished Lecture

University of Illinois

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

University of Illinois Graduate College Address Urbana, IL
United States

April 17, 2013

For those inclined to consider the humanities a low priority in a time of imperfectly disciplined budgets, let me conclude by noting that sometimes it is instructive to consider the “what ifs” in the life of a nation.

What if there had been no Vietnam War, no intervention in Iraq, no maintenance of troops in Saudi Arabia in the wake of the first Gulf War, the presence of which was the cause celebre of the al-Qaeda plotters who struck the Pentagon and World Trade Center on September 11, 2001?  Would America today have a stronger economy, more respected stature in the world?

Would there be more security at home and less anti-American hostility around the globe?

We, of course, have no choice except to plug ahead with policy options constrained by contemporary events. But of the many lessons emerging from this decade of strife, one surely is that cultural considerations matter, that humanities research and outreach programs and, most significantly, curricula in colleges and universities, are compelling social investments.

Which brings me to the final "what if."  What if society allows humanities studies to fade in significance?

Absent attention to humanities disciplines, is it not likely that America's capacity to lead the world and manage our own institutions of governance and commerce will diminish?

To fail to study history and ponder deeply what it means to be human, to refuse to contemplate the human condition revealed so resplendently in great literature, and to decline to think through the sources of our religious differences and the ethical and philosophical quandaries of the day is to impoverish our potential for making good decisions. Inevitably, we would magnify the misjudgments of our contemporaries and cut ourselves off from the wisdom of others in the near and ancient past.

We discount the role, indeed the power, of the humanities at great cost and greater risk.

Thank you.