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“Wicked Problems”: The Humanities in the Time of STEM

William D. Adams, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

University of California, Santa Cruz Santa Cruz, CA
United States

January 28, 2016

“Wicked Problems”: The Humanities in the Time of STEM

The Sidhartha Maitra Memorial Lecture

University of California, Santa Cruz 

Good evening.

I'd like to begin by thanking George Blumenthal, Nathaniel Deutsch, the Institute for Humanities Research, and the UC Santa Cruz Foundation for the invitation to be here tonight. Irena Polic of the Institute was very helpful with the arrangements for my visit. I also want to say how deeply honored I am to be associated with the Sidhartha Maitra Memorial Lecture Series. I want especially to thank Anu Luther Maitra for taking time to speak with me about her hopes for the series.  

I won’t pass up this unique opportunity to say how grateful I am for the education I received at Santa Cruz. I’ve been fortunate to attend some very good schools in my life, but in terms of intellectual depth and impact, nothing came close to the experience I had here. I was well prepared when I arrived, and I was lucky to be here at a particularly interesting time. But I also benefited enormously from the university’s core commitments to teaching and liberal learning. I’ll talk some tonight about those commitments as they relate to broader issues within the humanities. But I want to note at the outset the special importance of this place in my own development. I’m particularly grateful to the exceptional teachers with whom I studied—some of them are here tonight. I’m also glad and grateful to see friends from that time in the audience.

2015 was a season of 50th anniversary celebrations, both here and in Washington. In addition to Santa Cruz and the National Endowment for the Humanities, there have been celebrations of the Civil Rights Acts, the Voting Rights Act, the Immigration Act, and the Social Security Amendments, to name just a few of the extraordinary legislative achievements of 1965. On a more somber but relevant note, the U.S. Congress recently commemorated the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Vietnam War, which changed the American university and the country forever.

The founding of NEH and of Santa Cruz have much more in common than temporal proximity. Both were expressions of the progressive legislative impulses of the mid-1960s, and they shared a vision of the humanities and of liberal education. That vision was severely tested by the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s, and by the deep changes in the academy and American life in subsequent years. I want to talk about how those changes continue to resonate in our own time, against the backdrop of our overlapping histories.

A few months before his retirement in 1974, the founding Chancellor of Santa Cruz, Dean McHenry, gave a campus farewell address before a large and noisy audience of faculty and students. It was a memorable performance, not least for McHenry’s calm demeanor in the presence of the critical energy in the room. I also recall McHenry’s irrepressible excitement as he recalled the moment when campus construction started in 1964 and the dream of Santa Cruz at last became a physical reality.

I’m sure that I don’t need to remind this audience that Santa Cruz was something of a utopian moment in the California master plan for higher education. Dean McHenry and his Stanford roommate Clark Kerr were members of the task force that created that plan, which became California law in the Donahoe Higher Education Act of 1960.

What you may not know is that just three years later, another task force, the Commission on the Humanities, began its work in New York. Clark Kerr was also a member of that group, which proposed the creation of a national humanities foundation. That recommendation led eventually to the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, which Lyndon Johnson signed into law on September 29, 1965.

Dean McHenry and Clark Kerr were deeply concerned about the trajectory of the modern research university and the future of undergraduate education. Their concern was directed in part to the sheer scale and complexity of the modern university. But they were also worried about its coherence. The traditional ideal of the liberal arts and the education of the whole person were giving way, in their view, to the fragmenting demands for technical training in the natural sciences, engineering and other technical and professional domains. They feared that the “multiversity,” as Kerr called it, would have increasing difficulty presenting a balanced and coherent curriculum to undergraduates.  

They also worried about faculty incentives. In a prescient passage from his influential manifesto on higher education, The Uses of the University, Kerr notes that “more instruction falls to teachers who are not members of the regular faculty. . . . There seems to be a point of no return after which research, consulting, graduate instruction become so absorbing that faculty efforts can no longer be concentrated on undergraduate instruction as they once were. . . .”[1]

Members of the Commission on the Humanities had their own, related concerns about the place of the humanities in the intellectual landscape of the nation. In February 1965, Frederick Burkhardt, president of the American Council of Learned Societies, testified before Congress on the proposed legislation for NEH. Here is a revealing piece of that testimony:

In science, we have done well. . . . But there is now a widespread concern that the emphasis on science . . . has produced an imbalance in our civilization and specifically in our educational system where much of the vast amount provided for the support of science and scientific research has been invested. There has been no comparable investment in the humanities and the arts and in consequence the education of our young, including our young scientists, runs the risk of becoming narrowly technical and short-sighted. . . . A lopsided, half-starved educational system is something this country simply cannot afford, however strong in technology, however strong in defense and wealth. Science itself will suffer in such an environment.[2]

Kerr and McHenry were skeptical that the California university system and its flagship campuses could provide an integrated and balanced social and intellectual experience for undergraduates. But he held out the hope that a new public institution, dedicated from the outset to outstanding liberal education, could. “If there are to be new departures,” he writes near the end of The Uses of the University, “they are most likely to come on the campuses of those old, private universities… and on the totally new campuses of the state universities in America. . . .”[3]

The California campus where a “new departure” might be possible was of course this one—Santa Cruz. It was here, in this bucolic setting, that McHenry and Kerr hoped to counter the growing depersonalization, fragmentation, and professionalization of the multiversity with a unique experiment in public higher education. That experiment included several key features: a faculty culture explicitly committed to undergraduate teaching; the college system, where both students and faculty would experience intellectual and social community; the deemphasizing of academic disciplines and departments in favor of college-centered, multidisciplinary curricula and boards of studies; the abandonment of grades in favor of narrative evaluations of student performance; and a decisively aprofessional, perhaps even anti-professional bias with regard to the fundamental value and purpose of undergraduate education. It was also notable that the University eschewed intercollegiate athletics in favor of club sports. Banana Slugs forever!

While much of the founding discussion of Santa Cruz focused on undergraduate education, the founders knew that the University would have to have graduate and professional programs. And it was especially fitting that one of the first such ventures was the History of Consciousness Program. For His Con, as it came to be known, was—in its beginning, at least—a graduate program that had deep roots in the traditional ideal of liberal learning.

During my senior year at Colorado College, I studied with Harvey Rabbin, one of the very first graduates of His Con. He urged me to apply to the program. I was a philosophy major, and in my own limited way I could see how constraining disciplinary boundaries were to the study of history and to thinking about the contemporary world. Harvey described a place where one could study history, literature, philosophy, art, music and social science and theory all at once; a place where traditional boundaries of understanding were being dismantled. When I looked around the landscape of graduate programs in philosophy in the fall of 1971, no other place seemed as promising or exciting. And it didn’t hurt that Santa Cruz was in California—on the coast of California.

What I discovered when I arrived here in 1972 was in many ways true to the advertisements. There was a keen sense that something big—and perhaps unprecedented—was happening in His Con and at Santa Cruz. Students and faculty alike were pursuing their interests in ambitiously interdisciplinary ways. It didn’t seem all that problematic that His Con had no assigned faculty or dedicated courses of its own or requirements of any kind. It was all of a piece with the apparently boundless freedom and formlessness of the times.

And there was something else in the air—the idea that the intellectual work we were doing would help sort out the political and social turbulence of the times. It might even help create a better world. As I was thinking about this talk, I went back (with some trepidation, I might add) to my dissertation. I found this passage in the introduction:

For this generation of students and their teachers, the dissatisfaction with traditional philosophical perspectives and the search for new directions cannot be separated from the political upheavals of the 1960s and early 1970s. In my own experience and the experience of many of the people I knew and worked with, this connection was decisive. The political crisis grounded and directed our reading and thinking. It attracted us to innovative thinkers, or changed dramatically the way we read classical political and social theorists. In short, it was at times impossible to distinguish between the political and intellectual questions we were asking; for better or worse—and sometimes it was for the worse—politics and philosophy were the same things.[4]

With the perspective of all the time that has passed, it’s not difficult to see that for all its progressive impulses, the vision of the humanities that animated His Con in those very early years was in certain respects quite traditional. As its name suggests, the program had deep roots in the grand tradition of European thought and especially in the philosophical tradition that reached its apex in Hegel and Marx. That tradition was principally concerned with Western cultural heritage, and it was grounded in the notion that human history, in spite of all of its detours and complexities, works more or less steadily toward the unity of human experience and the progressive realization of human freedom.

His Con’s historicism was one branch of a fairly widespread academic consensus regarding the humanities in the 1960s, which the founders of NEH and Santa Cruz shared. It involved a distinctly highbrow view of culture, a canon of great works, a distinctly Western bias, and an educational vision at one with the classical notion of liberal learning. Matthew Arnold was never very far from this picture, neatly captured in the preface to the report of the Commission on the Humanities with this gem from John Adams: “I study politics and war that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study philosophy and mathematics, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children the right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture. . . .”[5]

In part because of its offbeat, innovative character and reputation, Santa Cruz did wonderfully well in its first decade or so. Applications were strong, and so too was the sense of intellectual community on campus. In 1972, Santa Cruz was one of the hottest campuses in the UC system, at one with the zeitgeist.  

But the world started to change in the late 1970s and the zeitgeist moved on.  The country entered a recession. Unemployment and inflation rose dramatically. Liberal education suddenly looked frivolous. Applications fell and the university had no choice but to think beyond the founding vision and framework of liberal education. These pressures were amplified by the beginning of a backlash against the counter culture of the 1960s, which was part of the Santa Cruz brand. As I think John Dizekis said, Santa Cruz was “overtaken by history.”

Richard Brodhead has recently argued[6] that at the same time, Americans’ views of the ultimate purposes of government also were changing. The country’s experience in Vietnam led to a pervasive skepticism, on the left and the right, regarding the fundamental integrity and trustworthiness of government. And in California, the success of Proposition 13 was a fateful first step in the long unwinding of the Great Society view of government that was essential to the founding of Santa Cruz and NEH.  

The humanities also started to change. There was movement away from a primarily Western orientation toward the global and multicultural; erosion of the authority of the classical Western canon and indeed the very notion of the canon itself; questioning of the idea of the fundamental unity of human experience across time and cultural difference; and erosion of the authority of the text. New critical and interpretative methodologies came to the fore, and the language of certain disciplines within the humanities became more technical, abstract, and inaccessible to people beyond the academy.

I had a close encounter with some of these changes and their consequences several years after I received my degree. After one-year teaching stints at Chapel Hill and Santa Clara, I was happy to land a position teaching in the Great Works in Western Culture Program at Stanford. As some of you know, that program was a year-long core requirement for all first-year Stanford students, and it consisted in a grand, multidisciplinary, humanities-based tour through the cultural history of the West by way of the canon of great works, beginning with ancient Greece and concluding at the end of the year with twentieth-century Europe and the United States. “Plato to NATO,” as a Stanford colleague liked to call it.

Shortly after I arrived at Stanford in 1984, the Western Culture Program was subjected to intense internal criticism for being too Western, too canonical, too homogenous. The ensuing debate was rich, intense, and provocative. And it concluded in the gradual abandonment of the core list of texts that had provided a common experience for all first-year Stanford students in favor of thematic “tracks” that had little in common beyond the small, writing and reading intensive seminar experience in the humanities.  

The Stanford debate was part of the wider culture wars that began in the mid-1980s and eventually affected many institutions, including NEH and NEA. They were punctuated by the publication in the late 1980s of Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind in 1989 and E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy. At Stanford, a pivotal moment arrived when William Bennett, Chairman of NEH and later Secretary of Education gave a public lecture and scolded students and faculty for capitulating to political pressures on the campus and abandoning the great humanities tradition. I was in the audience that day. Little did I know. . . .

The changes that were finally made at Stanford—the inclusion of texts outside the conventional canon and the Western tradition and especially the addition of works by women and members of underrepresented groups—made a great deal of sense to me at the time and they make sense to me still. Indeed, they were both intellectually sound and inevitable. But more recent developments at Stanford, in the core curriculum and the humanities more generally, have caused me to ponder the unintended consequences.

For after several additional years and changes to the program, it disappeared. A senior administrator at the University told me recently that the program had so little shared content that it became increasingly difficult to defend. Perhaps more important, as the connective tissue of the program fell away, and as the elements of a common intellectual experience withered, student satisfaction plummeted.

Today at Stanford, as at most institutions, the numbers of humanities majors and enrollments are declining steadily. Meanwhile, there are now something like 1,000 computer science majors, with no end in sight. It’s not unreasonable to wonder what the loss of a core humanities requirement may have done to diminish student taste for the humanities, and whether or not we should reexamine the idea of core requirements in the humanities.

What happened at Santa Cruz in the early 1980s and a bit later at Stanford foreshadowed things to come across the country. Economic recession causes anxiety among students and parents regarding the career preparation and the relevance of higher education to getting a job. Colleges and universities respond with marketing and curricular adjustments that emphasize career training and relevance. There is a rush to disciplines and programs perceived as “useful”; disciplines and programs perceived as marginal to economic gain struggle to maintain student interest and institutional resources.

But several things, separately and in combination, are distinctly different now. Here’s a partial list:

No one could have imagined 20 years ago the power and press of science and technology—especially information technology—on our daily lives and on the economy generally. The resulting elevation of STEM disciplines is likewise unprecedented. We are indeed living in the time of STEM.

The severity of the economic downturn of 2008-09 also was unprecedented in recent times. Fully seven years later, the country and the world are still recovering.

In part because of that downturn, and on top of the contraction of government generally, most public universities are profoundly challenged by the withering of state and federal support for higher education. This means that here are fewer resources for everyone, but especially for the arts and humanities.

What’s more, the downward pressures on humanities enrollments, majors, and career opportunities are more severe than in previous cycles. I’ve visited at least two dozen public and private universities in the last year and a half, and it’s not uncommon to hear of humanities enrollment reductions between 20 and 40 percent in just the last few years. Even elite private universities find themselves struggling to come to terms with the profound changes in student aspirations and behavior.

Surrounding all of this is the distinctly sour turn in the public mood regarding the worth of the humanities in the educational sphere and beyond. I am sure that we were all struck by the spectacle of a leading candidate for his party’s presidential nomination recently disparaging philosophers in the very public setting of a presidential debate.   

And here is the deep and fascinating irony of where we are. At the very moment the humanities are being pressured in the academy and disparaged in public places, the country is wrestling with challenges that need the humanities more than ever before. The most important challenges of our time—our “wicked problems,” as some refer to them—can’t be intelligently approached and described, never mind resolved, without the full engagement of the sensibilities, habits of mind and forms of knowledge that are fostered by humanistic inquiry, teaching and learning.

By way of example, start with technology itself. We know in an existential, somewhat inchoate way that our personal and professional lives have changed profoundly in the wake of the intrusion of everything digital. The human consequences of this phenomenon are clearly matters that require a variety of talents and sensibilities that transcend the technology that creates them. We can’t grasp the experiential impact of technology without humanities-based questions and perspectives.

The ubiquity of technology is also playing a key role in the powerful public debate now before us regarding the appropriate balance between liberty and security. The recent terrorist attacks in this country and around the world have amplified this debate, in mostly unhelpful ways. Here’s a place where more, not less, philosophy, history, and constitutional law and theory would be enormously useful to everyone.

And here’s another, equally contemporary wicked problem. The breathtaking developments in gene editing technology are raising extraordinarily thorny questions. Owing to the invention of a technology known as CRISPR/Cas9, it’s now possible to select certain specific human physical, psychological, and emotional traits and lock them into the human germ line, ensuring their heritability. Natural selection thereby becomes human selection; we now have full control of the human genome. What the implications of this new power are, how it is to be applied and controlled, and what values and rules might govern its uses are issues that will concern all of us, in one way or another.  

Some of our wicked problems are neither new nor technologically induced. We’ve all been reminded by events of the past year how deeply entrenched is the issue of race relations in American life. These events have raised many questions, including questions about rigid patterns of segregation in cities and neighborhoods, about policing, and about entrenched forms of inequality. But all of these questions work back to the question of our history. The surprise and dismay that many of us experienced throughout this very long year, the sinking feeling that race relations in this country are in a different and much worse place than we thought, suggests that we do not have a good grasp of how we got here, that we don't in fact know where we’ve come from. And so the history of race relations in the United States has become relevant in a new and painful way. We’re relearning the truth of Faulkner’s insight: “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.”

Around the country, college and university students have certainly grasped Faulkner’s meaning, perhaps without knowing any Faulkner. And they’re right to insist that the historical record be brought into public discussion. Ironically, some also have asked that the signposts to that history be removed, which is another way of constraining memory, at least for future generations. But the inclination to dig into our history in light of current events is admirable and necessary to the broader prospect of ameliorating race relations in this country.

Of course, the topic of race raises cultural as well as historical issues. And so, too, do events in other parts of the world. In the Middle East and elsewhere, we seem to be perpetually behind the cultural curve of events, especially as those events demand a basic understanding of the ways in which culture motivates key actors—nations, tribes, individuals, unaffiliated movements.

This raises the broader matter of cultural literacy as an aspect of public life and education. I know that term has been fraught since E.D Hirsch coined it in the late 1980s. But Hirsch was thinking about cultural literacy in a textual sort of way. I’m thinking about it, rather, as the understanding of the source and content of our collective identities—as Americans or Somali’s or Bhutanese; the sort of culture that ethnographers care and think about.

It would have been useful, in that vein, if, when Americans were debating the use of force in Iraq after 9/11, leaders and citizens alike had known more—or maybe anything at all—about the differences between Shia and Sunni Islam. It would be enormously useful today if citizens in Kansas and Iowa and Minnesota and Arizona and other places where immigration is changing the shape of the country were able to bridge the cultural differences that separate them from their newest neighbors. 

Cultural literacy in this sense is about both inclination and skills. Martha Nussbaum has talked compellingly about empathy as a vital attribute of democratic citizenship—the stretching of one’s emotional range to incorporate others who are different and nearby. Empathy is one of the several virtues the humanities teach. Other relevant skills, belonging uniquely to the humanities, include language skills, listening skills, and interpretative skills. There is also a knowledge factor here. Notwithstanding our complex family arguments about the nature of knowledge in the humanities, there really is such a thing as cultural knowledge, which consists in grasping the inner movements and meanings of various ways of life.

Cultural literacy is an essential piece of what Danielle Allen has called “participation readiness” in American democratic life.[7] Especially in the increasingly complex political, economic and social context in which we are living, a robust democratic political culture requires certain core competencies. In addition to cultural literacy, those competencies include, at the very least, acquaintance with the broad contours of American history and a passing understanding of the principles of liberal democracy.

I could continue in this way for a long time, but I think you see what I am getting at. Now more than ever, the sensibilities cultivated by the humanities are critical to our public life.

Knowing this in the abstract is one thing; bringing the humanities back to the center of the conversation about the purposes of education is quite another. So, what is to be done?

There is another irony, perhaps more hopeful irony in our current situation. While humanities scholars and programs find themselves under pressure in the academy and in public opinion, my experience at NEH suggests that some humanities practices are in fact flourishing in many public places beyond the academy.

For example, there are now more than 35,000 museums in the United States. These institutions attract approximately 850 million visitors every year, which exceeds attendance for all major league sporting events and theme parks combined. The American Library Association reports that there are 120,000 libraries of every shape and size in this country. In 2012 alone, over 92 million people attended the nearly 4 million programs offered by public libraries. Significant public participation in humanities-based practices continues to flourish in other areas, as well. The Public Broadcasting Service estimates that more than 33 million people viewed the initial broadcast of The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, the latest NEH-funded Ken Burns documentary. NEH-funded radio productions reach millions of listeners every day through National Public Radio and affiliated stations across the country.

I know that the academic humanities have somewhat different purposes from the public humanities. But we can learn from them something about audience. Because they depend on direct public engagement and support, museums and libraries and public media have had to find ways to engage their publics in ways that sustain their attention. The academic humanities might find encouragement in some of these practices.

There’s probably no better place to begin more public-facing work than by addressing the wicked problems that define our contemporary situation. One can imagine tremendously interesting curricular initiatives taking shape around humanities work on these topics. And because the topics are inherently interdisciplinary, humanities scholars would find abundant new opportunities for collaboration in addressing them.

Teaching the wicked problems implies new kinds of linkages with fields outside the humanities, as well. I’m thinking especially of science, engineering, medicine and business. If it’s our reality to occupy the time of STEM, and if it’s likely, as I think it is, that resources and students will continue to chase the STEM fields, then we should be demonstrating how that migration is incomplete and maybe incoherent without humanities practitioners who can help us understand the lived, experiential dimensions and implications of the scientific, technical and professional worlds and ways of knowing.

These and still other new curricular approaches are important and promising. But we won’t be able to make a fully compelling case for the centrality of the humanities or the arts without at the same time reengaging the ideal of liberal learning. As Clark Kerr and Dean McHenry did in the early 1960s, we must place liberal learning at the forefront of our discussions about the basic purposes of education. For the “education of the whole person,” as tradition had it, has always been the framework within which the arts and humanities derive their power and relevance.

Of course, that way of speaking—“the education of the whole person”—sounds dated to us. And as Danielle Allen has pointed out, it also invokes the elitist sensibilities that were part and parcel of the ideal of liberal learning for all of the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth century, when liberal learning was reserved for leaders and social elites. Some of that elitism still clings to public perception of the liberal arts in the United States.

We need, then, to seek a more democratic view and expression of liberal learning that focuses on citizenship and the diverse capacities required to be an engaged and informed member of contemporary democratic society. At the same time, we can’t lose sight of the other dimensions of life where the humanities are so consequential. I’m thinking especially of our personal lives, where all of us seek meaning.  

The conception of liberal learning and the humanities that I am arguing for involves a re-appropriation of the term “pragmatic”.” The demand that education be useful is not one that we should fear or flee. In the spirit of John Dewey, William James and Richard Rorty, we should be eager to demonstrate that the liberal arts and sciences, and the humanities more specifically, are profoundly useful to the breadth of our experience and challenges as human beings.

What I’m invoking here is not our experience as rendered by the natural sciences and the highly quantitative social sciences, though those renderings are important, and also useful. It is rather experience as it is lived, out in the world, by real people. It’s from this domain of lived experience that the humanities ultimately derive their fullest power and significance. They give us access to and help us comprehend our experience in its raw, unmediated, and ultimately inescapable and irreducible form.

It will take time and effort to make the case for a pragmatic and democratic view of the liberal arts, to demonstrate it, and to reposition the humanities within such a framework. It will also take experimentation and the compelling examples that experiments provide. Last but certainly not least, it will take decisive action by institutions.

Because of its history and DNA, I can’t think of a better place than Santa Cruz to show the world what a rejuvenated, contemporary, democratic form of liberal undergraduate education looks like. There is a deep legacy of innovative thinking here, and a true understanding of what the education of the whole person means. What a fitting way to celebrate the past, and what an exciting and meaningful way to shape the university’s future.  

Thank you.


[1] Clark Kerr, The Uses of the University: New York, 1965, p. 65.

[2] Frederick Burkhardt, Statement before the Special Subcommittee on the Arts and Humanities of the Senate and the Special Subcommittee on Labor of the House of Representatives, February 26, 1965.

[3] The Uses of the University, p. 121.

[4] William D. Adams, “Digging in the Same Place”: An Essay in the Political and Social Philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty: Santa Cruz, 1981.

[5] John Adams, Report of the Commission on the Humanities: New York, 1964, p. iv.

[6] Richard Brodhead, “The Fate and Fortunes of Public Goods,” Humanities, November/December 2015.

[7] Danielle Allen, “On Participatory Readiness: Why the Humanities Are Necessary for Democracy.” Democracy and the Humanities Symposium, Loyola University, September 25, 2015.