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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

Half a century ago the English physicist and novelist C.P. Snow delivered a controversial lecture at Cambridge University called "The Two Cultures" in which he lamented the gulf between scientists and a group he described as "literary intellectuals."  He cited several examples – scientists ignorant of the social insights of Dickens and humanists ignorant of the second law of thermodynamics.

At the risk of exaggeration, the gulf Snow depicted might be described as illiteracy matching innumeracy in the citadels of academia. But however defined, Snow held that the breakdown of communication between the sciences and the humanities hindered solutions to social problems. Assuming some legitimacy to this contention, what is the situation five decades later?

In many ways the science-humanities distinction is more complicated today as advances in physics, biology and chemistry have become more complex. Nonetheless, from a methodological perspective, the technological revolution that began with the development of the point-contact transistor and thence the digital electronic computer, the integrated circuit, and the microprocessor has found the humanities and sciences sharing a growing portion of common ground.

Just as computers allow mathematical computations applied to scientific inquiry to be made at blinding speed, so the digitization of images of a myriad of pictures and objects and billions of words harvested from books, journals, and documents enables the application of scientific methods to vast amounts of cultural and social science data.  Indeed, the new research tools that STEM has wrought have spawned a new academic field called the digital humanities which is defined by process techniques rather than area of study. While ready access to information has widened and deepened the scope of virtually all fields of scholarship, NEH has found that the digital humanities are particularly well suited for cross-disciplinary, cross-institution, and cross-border collaborations.

Based on research pioneered so significantly here at the University of Illinois, initially augmented at places as diverse as Bell Labs, Princeton, Iowa State, M.I.T., Stanford, and the University of Pennsylvania, commercial firms like Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Apple, and Google have been given the opportunity to advance new kinds of consumer products and services. As a consequence, the revolutionary hallmark of our times is the emergence of a New Digital Class, characterized less by occupation, birth, geographic location, and the science-humanities divide than by an individual's degree of curiosity, diligence and access to digital technology.

The important division in the new communications age is no longer the one between science and the humanities. It is in the first instance the growing gulf between those who have crossed the digital divide and those who by choice, lack of access or capacity have not; and in the second, between those who seek information from diverse sources with an open-minded perspective and those who choose to rely on single-dimensioned purveyors of views.