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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

Yet seldom has it been more important for individuals in the public arena to appeal to the better angels rather than the baser instincts of the body politic. Whether the issues are social or economic, domestic or international, the temptation to appeal to the darker side of human nature must be avoided. The stakes are too high. The health of nations is directly related to the temperance of statecraft, to whether public officials inspire hope or manipulate fear.

It is also related to the depth of knowledge applied to decision-making.  In reviewing, for example, our decision to go to war in Iraq it is extraordinary how inadequate attention to cultural issues may have cost lives and reputations as well as money. Yes, there was an "intelligence" failure related to misjudgments about alleged Iraqi complicity in 9/11 and the status of Iraq's nuclear and bio­chemical weapons capacities.  But the greatest "intelligence" failure was our lack of understanding of the region itself.

Despite having gone to war in the Persian Gulf a decade earlier, Congress and Executive branch policy makers understood little of the Sunni/Shi'a divide when 9/11 hit.  Likewise, despite the French experience in Algeria and the British and Russian in Afghanistan, we had little comprehension of the depth of Islamic antipathy to foreign intervention. And, despite the tactics of a Daniel Boone­style patriot named Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, who attacked British garrisons at night during the Revolutionary War and then vanished in South Carolina swamps during the day, we had little sense for the effectiveness of asymmetric warfare.

A skeptic once suggested that the humanities are little more than studies of flaws in human nature. Actually they uplift on the one hand and warn on the other.  The power of a few to commit acts of social destruction and the contrasting capacity of a few to precipitate uplifting change has grown exponentially in the last century. A race between these contrasting capacities is gathering momentum.

For the best of our values to prevail, Americans must awake from historical slumber. A renewed emphasis on the study of various humanities disciplines, especially history, is vital because of our unique role in the world and because academic testing tells us that Americans have more limited historical and geographic knowledge than virtually any other advanced society. 

To look presciently forward we have no choice except to look carefully back.

History has a circular quality. It tends to repeat, sometime rewind. Wisdom, by contrast is linear. Smart people, parents tell their children, learn from their own mistakes. A really smart person, a corollary might suggest, learns from the mistakes of others. And a sage gleans great truths from the wise as well as mistaken steps of those who came before.

Every circumstance is, of course, different than any other.  We don't ever walk in exactly the same way in the same physical or social environment.  People and situations change. Hence it is important to think imaginatively as well as pragmatically and historically. There are many ways to stimulate the imagination, from reading literature, studying and creating art, to reviewing history. But the lynchpins that most often tie other studies together are history and story-telling, oral and written. No disciplines outside the humanities more effectively allow us to put on the shoes of others in past ages and different contemporary circumstances.

St. Paul once suggested that we all look through a glass darkly. Metaphorically, Paul may have made the ultimate case for humility.  While faith may be absolute, Paul suggests that man simply doesn't have the capacity to know the will of God or apply perfectly the wisdom of His apostles on earth. An analogous lack of certitude should be applied to history. There can be clarity about certain historical facts like names and dates but the whys and wherefores of events can be elusive. It is no accident that history can be more controversial than current events. Nonetheless, despite the fog that always hovers over memory, it is clear that the deeper our understanding of the past, the greater our capacity to cope with the present and mold the future.