Skip to main content

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

Life of society and the individual is a continuum. History may be the story of the dead but it never dies. It continues to shape who we are and  how we think.

Shelley once described poets as unacknowledged legislators. The great 19th Century American poet of the common man, Walt Whitman, went further and implied that their authority stretched beyond traditional political conceptions. Intoxicated with the notion that poetry could be an antidote to violence, he once wrote that his greatest dream was for "an internationality of poems and poets binding the lands of the earth closer than all treaties and diplomacy..."

A third of the way around the world from this great heartland academic center, Dostoevsky affirmed something similar: "Beauty," he said, "will save the world."

A third of the way around the world in the opposite direction, Confucius suggested that "when music and courtesy are better understood and appreciated, there will be no war."

All of this sounds rather naive but there are few people in the political realm who ever understood the human condition better than Shelley, Whitman, Dostoevsky and Confucius. Their angle of vision was philosophy and literature.  They understood that the thinking of man must be uplifted.  Words and thought patterns matter.  When  pieced together in the logic of works like Mein Kampf, they may be used to instill hate and divide, or they may, as in the poetry of Shelley and Whitman, the novels of Dostoevsky and the wisdom of Confucius, be used to reach out and unite. These are our choices.

In making these choices, care has to be taken to recognize that seldom is there only one proper path determinable by one individual, one political party or one country.

Whether a person knows a great deal or very little, caution should be taken about being certain of very much. To know a lot may be a preferable condition to knowing little, but the best and the brightest are not immune from great mistakes. Imperfect judgment characterizes the human condition. That is why humility is such a valued character trait, and why civility is such an important part of an interconnected world polity.

Half a century ago, the British author Lawrence Durrell wrote a set of novels called the Alexandria Quartet. Each one was a first person narrative covering the same cluster of minor events between the two world wars in Alexandria, Egypt. An individual may wonder why read about the same happenings four different times? It ends up that while the events are the same, the stories are quite different. One person's perspective proved to be only a snapshot of reality. The moral Durrell implicitly sets forth is that a clear picture cannot be pieced together without looking through the lens of a multiplicity of eyes and experiences. If such is the case in one town in one time frame, doesn't it take many eyes and many perspectives to develop a bare inkling of understanding of a moving kaleidoscope  of events?

The most meaningful discovery in a liberal arts education is that everything is related to everything else, although we may not know it at the time. Wisdom involves the tying together of threads of learning. The challenge is to discover and then correlate discoveries, the most important of which relate to perspective: values, methods of thinking and doing, rather than facts.

The insights provided by humanities disciplines and the judgmental capacity to think broadly and correlate cogently which they inculcate are not dismissible options for society. Humanities studies revitalize the human spirit, rev up our productive engines, and lessen the likelihood of mistake-making in public policy as well as private life.