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The New Digital Class

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada
350 Albert Street
Ottawa, ON K1P6G4
Canada

December 3, 2009

Minister Goodyear, Dr. Gaffield, I am honored to join this launch of the “Digging into Data Challenge”—the first multiple-country competition of its kind in the digital humanities.

Rather than addressing the specifics of the initiative, I would like to comment briefly on what this international collaboration symbolizes.

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 who had hardly read Dickens and literary figures who couldn’t define the second law of thermodynamics.

At the risk of exaggeration, the gulf 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 Snow’s contention, what is the situation 50 years later?

In many ways the science-humanities division is more extreme today as physics has gotten more math dependent, biology and chemistry more complex, and many scientific issues more abstract.

In the late 18th and 19th centuries when the United States developed its political moorings, artisan-philosophers like Benjamin Franklin, farmer-statesmen like Thomas Jefferson, and portrait artists like Samuel F.B. Morse could not only be conversant with much of known science but actually contribute to its advancement and application. Today, people in the humanities can’t keep up with science, which in the last century entered, in Rutherford’s terms, a “heroic” age.

Nevertheless, as exemplified by the digital projects under review in the “Digging into Data Challenge,” a middle ground is fast being created where the humanities meet science with 3rd-party technology. Just as the hand-held calculator makes a teenager proficient in arithmetic, digital technology provides a humanist the prowess to apply scientific methodology to scholarly research. Likewise, the computer keyboard and Internet give scientists an open window into the humanities.

As great as their differences, these two contrasting fields of inquiry are now feeding off each other. Scientific endeavor is changing life on the planet and affecting the course of history. Similarly, history, literature, philosophy, and the creative arts are reference points, stimulating the imagination, providing contextual and ethical perspective to the scientific community.

The sciences cannot ignore the humanities any more than the humanities can ignore what science has wrought.

So, while the “Digging into Data Challenge” signifies interactive, international scholarship of a distinctive kind, the bigger picture is that the initiative is a reflection of the emergence of a New Digital Class composed of humanists as well as scientists and engineers. Divisions continue between scientific logic and cultural reasoning but math-based technology can now be utilized as readily by the linguistically oriented as the scientifically inclined.

For most of recorded history men and women only had the option of one occupation—that of their parents. As civilization changed through the centuries, social organization became increasingly structured, with some people, such as first-born males and those born to the manor, having more advantages than others.

Over the last several centuries, inspired by ideas of the European Enlightenment and symbolized by the American and French Revolutions, political rights have spread and access to wealth widened, but society remained demarcated by inheritance and social class tied to individual occupations.

Suddenly with the transition to the new millennium, the cultural hallmark of the world is the development of the New Digital Class, characterized less by occupation, birth, whereabouts, and the science-humanities divide than by degree of curiosity, diligence and access to digital technology.

Thus the anomaly: the existence, on the one hand, of a widening gulf between scientists who explore the unknown and scholars in the humanities who address life’s enduring questions; on the other, a technology-driven narrowing of the academic chasm. The important division is no longer the one between science and the humanities. It is the growing gulf between those who have crossed the digital divide and those who by choice or lack of capacity have not.

Institutions like libraries, museums, and universities have helped democratize knowledge gathering. But few revolutions in human history can match the democratizing consequences for individual learning of the development, cheapening, and spread of digital communication devices. Since the Enlightenment, the issue of equality has been looked upon as a political question tied to techniques of social organization and governmental policies of the moment. But in the modern world access to knowledge is becoming as central to advancing equal opportunity as access to the ballot box has proven to be the key to advancing political rights.

Unfortunately, access to certain kinds of knowledge involves the most sobering choice ever posed: whether the results of scientific inquiry will serve the interests of man or jeopardize the existence of mankind. After all, for the first time in history we have the capacity not only to wage war but with atomic energy and biological weapons destroy life on the planet.

It is in this sobering context that as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities I have initiated a program called “Bridging Cultures.” What I have in mind is advancing humanities efforts and studies that bridge time, space and disciplines:

  • Time—in the sense that the cultural experience of man—i.e., history—informs our approach to current family and social challenges;
  • Space— in the geographic sense that America is a robust national culture with a mosaic of subcultures borrowing from and rubbing up against multiple national and regional cultures;
  • Disciplines—on the assumption that cross-disciplinary approaches should be taken within the humanities and between the humanities and the many facets of science and engineering.

The studies involved in most of the applications for the “Digging into Data Challenge” fit one or more of the above categories. But I would like from a U.S. perspective to address briefly aspects of the second category that relates to the contemporary cultural “elbowing” in the world.

In the early 1950s Winston Churchill gave an address at a small Missouri college, Westminster, where he coined the phrase “Iron Curtain” and articulated the challenge to the West posed by Soviet expansionism. A decade later, with Churchill’s speech in mind, the British historian, Arnold Toynbee, addressed another Midwestern college, Grinnell, and warned that Americans and Russians were both ignoring what he considered to be the sources of friction more likely to lead to war in the following decades.

Toynbee argued that Americans, understandably absorbed in the early 1960s with the civil rights movement, were overestimating the prospect of long-term racial cleavages and that Russians were foolish to be blinded by Marxist dogma, particularly economic determinism. The near-term tensions in the world that would excite the passions of people to opt for war, Toynbee presciently suggested, were far more likely to be related to religious differences than economic or racial ones.

The power of a committed few to do good as well as the power of a few to commit acts of societal destruction has been underestimated throughout history. Today civilization is on trial as radical elements in distant parts of the world stoke differences between and within faith systems.

In response to violent acts of various parties and the dislocating consequences of the global recession, a divisive rhetoric of anger has been precipitated in recent years in the West as well as the East. On the assumption that civilization requires civility, I have commenced a 50-state civility tour to suggest that Americans would be wise to tone down the words they use to define differences between fellow citizens and adversaries, actual or potential.

If we don’t try to understand and respect others, how can we expect them to respect us, our values and way of life?

When given a choice, people in many societies prefer to live near and communicate with those of like background. An emanation of this phenomenon appears in the new media in America where citizens are gravitating to the networks and blogs that share their perspective, sometimes to an extreme.

Analogously, in much of the Muslim world a single-dimensioned drum beat of anti-Western, particularly anti-American, sentiment is being advanced on a daily basis.

The unresolved issue is whether the new communication technologies are of a nature that will facilitate bringing people together or cause greater cleavages within and between cultures. While divisive tendencies seem most evident at the moment, I am convinced that in the long-term shared learning and shared perspectives are unifying. Technology that allows borderless, people-to-people communication will help humanize social issues; scholar-to-scholar collaborations will help advance human understanding; and the New Digital Class will lead in advancing social cohesion.

In this macro-context, the “Digging into Data Challenge” is a micro-sized but nonetheless ground-breaking example of the kind of inquiries now possible to assist peoples of the world to better comprehend their own place in the sun by shedding light on how others in prior times and different circumstances lived and thought.

The hunger for shared learning with open dialogue is shown by the overwhelming response to the initiative. At the NEH we are proud to work with our partners in Canada, the United Kingdom and our colleagues at the National Science Foundation. We are impressed with the potential of this kind of collaborative research and look forward to continued discussions with international partners to develop further innovative approaches to scholarship that expands perspective on our times.

Thank you.