A Manifesto for the Humanities

I need to start by saying that even though I spent my undergraduate career as a Classics major, translating Ancient Greek and Latin, there have been many times that I have questioned the wisdom of an education in the humanities. I had the good fortune to be confronted many times with the division between science and technology and social science and the humanities. While I was an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh, the dean of the Honors College, G. Alec Stewart, would constantly push me and other students to explore this division and think about what we were doing in the context of the breadth and depth of education.

So, even though I was a humanities major, there was no ignoring science, but then, I never wanted to ignore it. I always wanted to participate in some small way.

That said, I admit there were times when I read or heard about some scientist who had made a mark in the humanistic world and felt some despair. If they could do the humanities as well as the humanists, was there nothing the humanists had to offer? Should we all just leave literature and philosophy and the like to our free time and focus on math and science and technology?

Looking at it from another perspective, it seemed that there was nothing for a humanities major to do. This was an increasingly technical world. I do still feel like there is not a lot of call for the humanistically minded. This is summed up in a nice passage from Humboldt’s Gift, by Saul Bellow:

“And poets like drunkards and misfits or psychopaths, like the wretched, poor or rich, sank into weakness — was that it? Having no machines, no transforming knowledge comparable to the knowledge of Boeing or Sperry Rand or IBM or RCA. For could a poem pick you up in Chicago and land you in New York two hours later? Or could it compute a space shot? It had no such powers. And interest was where power was. In ancient times poetry was a force; the poet had real strength in the material world. Of course, the material world was different then.”

I believe that in our increasingly technolgically-dominated world that poetry, art, literature, philosophy, and the other humanities struggle more than ever to demonstrate their relevance. Ten thousand channels and nothing is on. Everything becomes worthy of spending time and money on and the worst is held up as the best. I think Plato would be more dismayed than ever by the state of popular culture.

That said, I would never argue for banning anything. I think the answer for bad speech is more speech. I think that people really can find things that are good, provided that the good things are truly available.

Now more than ever, then, I think it is necessary that people gain a true understanding of the humanities. The reason is that the humanities are what stand between us and our own follies. It is appreciation of stories and art and ideas that can’t be easily measured or fit into a framework of rules that will protect us from pernicious influences.

More succinctly, the goal of a humanities education should be to teach us about our humanity and the humanity of others. The goal of an education in the humanities should be to teach people to say “That’s bullshit! We’re not going to go along with it” when confronted by an ideology, authority, or anything else that would damage their humanity.

The humanities will teach people to confront ideas, test them, and take them apart to see if they truly work. The humanities encourage the thought that all ideas are subject to scrutiny and nothing should be taken for granted, especially in the realm of human affairs. This does not mean that rigor does not exist in the realm of the humanities, in fact, it makes logical examination and argument all the more important.

But it is the humanities that will make people think twice about things like the Milgram experiment and the famous prisoner experiment at Stanford University. In the Milgram experiment, psychologists were testing the limits of obedience to authority. Subjects were ordered to give electric shocks of increasing power to participants on the other side of a wall when they answered questions incorrectly. While no one was really shocked, the subjects did not know this, and 65% of them continued the experiment all the way to the end. While I don’t know the profile of those who refused to give shocks, reportedly, those who did involved ethics or perhaps some higher power. This idea of ethics is what comes with a humanistic education.

In the Standford prison experiment, students were divided into guards and prisoners and the guards became increasingly sadistic and the prisoners depressed and extremely stressed. The idea was that they assumed their roles all too well. But It was humanistic thinking that began to develop the ideas of democracy and the ideas that people are all deserving of human rights. It is humanistic thinking that ended slavery, as opposed to technical or economic ideas regarding the various races.

Thinking beyond our own condition and the orders given to us will be what prevents the human race from destroying itself.

“The distinctive value of the world’s great stories is that they lead the reader to share imaginatively the rich and varied experience of the individual characters confronted with problems and condistions of life common to people in all ages.” — From: The Trivium The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric, by Sister Miriam Joseph

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