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A Looming Crisis in the Humanities

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

The American Academy of Arts and Science
136 Irving Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

October 8, 2010

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 humanists 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 five decades later?

In many ways the science-humanities division is more extreme today as physics has become more math dependent, biology and chemistry more complex, and scientific inquiries more abstract. Nevertheless, from a methodological perspective, the technological revolution that began with the digital computer allows the humanities and sciences to share an increasing portion of common ground.

Digitization of a myriad of objects and billions of pages of books and manuscripts enables the application of scientific methods to vast amounts of social science data. Just as computers have accelerated the mapping of the human genome, they allow humanities scholars to trace the changing meaning of written phrases over time, to see the evolution of a melody from a Greek chorus, and even to build a virtual world that recreates the Temple at Karnak. Likewise, digital technology and the Internet give scientists an open window into the humanities.

As a consequence, the social hallmark of our times is the emergence of a New Digital Class, characterized less by occupation, birth, geographic location, and the science-humanities divide than by an individual’s degree of curiosity, diligence and access to digital technology.

The important division in the new communications age is no longer the one between science and the humanities. It is in the first instance the growing gulf between those who have crossed the digital divide and those who by choice, lack of access or capacity have not; and in the second, between those who seek information from diverse sources with an open-minded perspective and those who choose to rely on single dimensioned purveyors of views.

The question of whether a twittering world will cause greater understanding and social integration at the community and international level or lead to greater intolerance and social splintering is yet to be resolved. What is clear is that few revolutions in history can match the democratizing consequences for individual learning of the development and spread of digital communication devices.

Since the Enlightenment, the issue of equality has been looked upon as a political ideal 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 social equality and opportunity across the globe as access to the ballot box has proven to be the key to advancing political rights.

Unfortunately, mastery of certain kinds of knowledge involves the most sobering quandary ever presented: 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 the capacity exists not only to wage war but to destroy life on the planet.

As Einstein so presciently warned, splitting the atom has changed everything except our way of thinking.

The sciences cannot ignore the humanities any more than the humanities can ignore what science has wrought. Whatever differences may exist between the capacity of scientists to explore the unknown in nature and the ability of scholars in the humanities to address life’s enduring questions in tandem or in the wake of scientific advances, science and the humanities are unalterably entangled.

Just as scientific endeavor is changing life on the planet and affecting the course of man’s relationship to man, so studies in the humanities and the creative arts are reference points, stimulating the imagination and providing contextual and ethical perspective to scientific inquiry and its consequences.

What is so sobering about Einstein’s warning is the reminder that our way of thinking may be a stubborn constant in a world of unprecedented change. If the most recent century, the bloodiest on record and the one wracked by unprecedented “isms” of hate, is a guide, human nature has a dueling rational and irrational dimension: a vulnerability to self-centered Hobbesian beastliness and a contrasting selfless capacity to stand up for shared values and the common good.

The power of a few to commit acts of societal destruction as well as the power of a committed few to bring about uplifting change in the world has been underestimated throughout history. Today civilization is on trial from two extremes: the looming prospect that proliferating weapons of mass destruction could be unleashed, and the reality that the more advanced and open a society, the more vulnerable it is to global terrorism.

In this context, mutual understanding — the bridging of cultures, near and far — is the requirement of our age. Civilization may be embellished by science but it requires civility to survive.

Whether violence is an integral element of the human condition or a learned response is a matter of conjecture. But non-violence is almost certainly a practice that must be learned. From an academic perspective the most relevant disciplines for developing social perspective are the humanities — history, literature, philosophy, linguistics, comparative religion.

Today America leads the world in almost every academic field, but a crisis is looming in the humanities. This crisis is reflected in federal programming where research dollars for the natural sciences have tripled since the mid-1990s but have been held in check in the social sciences. More consequentially, in an increasing number of American universities the disciplines that are most associated with giving an individual the imaginative capacity to put him or herself in another’s shoes are under pressure relative to disciplines perceived to be more vocation oriented.

There is every reason to honor the sciences and support investigations into the unknown, be they related to the beginnings of the universe or the extending of human life. Yet, in the end, dark matter and dark energy may be easier to understand in the physical sciences than dark motives are in the social arena.

Impelled by the implications of what Rutherford once described as the “heroic” age of science, the humanities are obligated to embrace the challenges that emerge from science and advance a fuller understanding of our times and a deeper grasp of human nature. There is no rational option except to change our way of thinking, beginning with greater tolerance.

What is required is a greater willingness to consider — respectfully — diverse views, recognizing that we are all connected and rely on each other.

Seldom is there only one proper path determinable by one individual, one country, or one political party. Public decision-making does not lend itself to certitude. Everybody can learn from somebody else. That is why humility is a valued character trait and civility a central ingredient of a free society and a safer world.

Thank you.