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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

Since the Enlightenment, the issue of equality has been viewed as a political ideal tied to democratic institutions and governmental policies of the moment. But in the modern world access to knowledge is becoming as central to advancing social equality and opportunity across the globe as access to the ballot box has proven to be the key to advancing political rights.

The question of whether a tweeting world will cause greater understanding and social integration at the community and international level or lead to greater intolerance and social splintering is yet to be resolved.  What is clear is that few revolutions in history can match the democratizing consequences for individual learning of the development and spread of digital communication devices and the software capacities that fuel use of such hardware.

If a wide-eyed creature sitting on the moon this last century were assigned the task of assessing what constructive happenings had occurred on earth, that creature would have to conclude that the most impressive achievements of man in this period of world wars, religious and ideological conflict clearly has been in the STEM disciplines. Conversely, these advances have also added to the vulnerability of humankind.

After all, at the same time that the capacity to compute and correlate, heal the sick, communicate to the most distant corners of civilization, and travel around the earth, even into outer space, has leaped forward, the power to destroy and do harm  has also grown exponentially.  For the first time in man's existence, the capacity exists not only to wage war but to destroy life on the planet. As Einstein so presciently warned, splitting the atom has changed everything except our way of thinking.

Vulnerability is now the state of man, everywhere.

Civilization is jeopardized at one end by weapons of mass destruction and at the other by hatred-driven anarchy. For the first time in history terrorism has been globalized and asymmetric warfare computerized. Just as a plot was hatched against America on 9/11 from a mountainous redoubt halfway around the world, cyber-attacks may with increasing ease be launched from distant computer "silos." In less than a decade the United States has become vulnerable to foreign powers or galvanized groups capable of wreaking havoc on our economic infrastructure – everything from the electric grid to the financial system – without a shot being fired.

The national security dilemma of our age is that the more advanced and open a society, the more exposed it is to anarchistic acts.

Man's fate has never been more interwoven with unprecedented security challenges. Optimism can only be presumed if STEM advances are coupled with greater humanistic understanding. Calculus and physics require a linkage to history and ethics. Together, STEM and the humanities flourish; apart society is jeopardized.

Despite differences that may exist between the capacity of scientists to explore the unknown in nature and the ability of scholars in the humanities to address life's enduring questions, the sciences cannot ignore the humanities any more than the humanities can ignore what science has unveiled.

What may be counter-intuitive to many is that the challenges in the humanities exceed those of STEM. This is the case because grasping and sharing the art of human understanding is vastly more difficult than mastering the technology embedded in smart phones and the most powerful computers.  Love and hate, beauty and fear are more complex than high speed algorithms and non-Euclidean geometry.

There is every reason to honor the sciences and support investigations into the unknown, be they related to the beginnings of the universe or the extending of human life. Yet, in the end, dark matter and dark energy may be easier to understand in the physical sciences than dark motives are in the social arena. The Higgs Boson has been identified and, perhaps by extrapolation, found, but peace on earth has not been secured.

The bottom line case for humanities studies is thus a risk management one – the necessity of developing the wisdom, policies and tools to avoid the apocalypse. The only credible methodology to secure and ennoble life on the planet is to build habits and techniques of conflict resolution that do not involve recourse to violence at every level of social interaction.