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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

Rote thinking is the standard of the status quo. Stimulating the imagination is the key to the future. As Einstein once observed, imagination is more important than knowledge, and his life is proof of the imaginative mind trumping skill-set knowledge. In a math-based science, Einstein was never considered a first tier mathematician.  But he was an unparalleled imaginer. In pondering self-initiated thought problems he probed the meaning of the universe.

As individuals each of us tries to make sense of our own odysseys through life. Our universe is small in relation not only to the solar system but the communities in which we live. But wherever we might be, we are affected by global events, whether related to the challenges of national security or the global hiring hall. In this insecure geo-political environment, a deeper comprehension of the fourth "R" (reality) has never been more important.

What better way is there to apply perspective to our times than to study the history of prior times?  What better way is there to learn to write well than to read great literature? What better way is there to think critically and understand American traditions than to parse the thinking of Enlightenment philosophers like Locke and Montesquieu and review their influence on our founders and our Constitutional system? And, does not art making and art appreciation instill a sense for the creative process?

The principal rationale for humanities studies is that they enhance the meaning of life and embellish what it means to be human. This rationale is so powerful that it too easily obscures the utilitarian case which is also compelling.

How can we compete in our own markets if we don't understand our own culture and its enormous variety of subcultures, or abroad if we don't understand foreign languages, histories and traditions?

How can we stimulate long-term economic growth if we don't cultivate a broadly educated workforce able to navigate a knowledge-based, global economy?

How can we understand our own era and the place of our own values if we don't study other faith systems – Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and the relationship of diverse religions to the Old and New Testaments?

How can we contain prejudice and counter forces of hatred if we don't come to know more about each other?

How can we undergird our civic institutions and precipitate sound public policy if we don’t understand the rights and responsibilities of citizenship?

The dilemma of today's politics is that America has an abundance of leadership in commerce, science, the arts and every facet of the academy but the political system is hamstrung by ideological cleavages. President Eisenhower warned years ago of a military-industrial complex. Today my worry is more about the rise of a "political-ideological complex."  Ideologues use politicians as pawns while politicians use ideologues as enablers of personal ambition. This reinforcing set of mutual interests has little to do with the common good and much to do with the break-down in civility in public life.