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Notes on the humanities

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The above quotation is from Martin Luther King Jr.'s Where Do We Go From Here, as excerpted in The Radical King. King's point is simple -- and may be more relevant today than it was in 1967 when he wrote this.

We have lived through -- and continue to live through -- a technological revolution that has altered our means of interacting and our relationship with the world.  Everything is now seemingly available and yet also made distant by digital communications. We live longer, thanks to changes in medicine and the spread of technology designed to prevent the spread of disease. But it is questionable whether we are living better.

Science is king -- as evidenced by the move away from education in the humanities and the expansion of so-called STEM curricula. The theory is that expanding our focus on STEM -- science, technology, engineering, and mathematics -- will make us more competitive in the world, lift our incomes, and return the United States to a position of economic power.

This assumption ignores the facts that we remain one of the largest economies in the world and that we have experienced growth in recent years, modest though it might be. The issue isn't continued growth, so much, as it is who gets to benefit from this growth. It is a question of distribution, which is an ethical and moral question that science and technology are not equipped to answer.

The growth in STEM classes has been accompanied by the lessening of the influence of humanities. President Obama has focused extensively in his higher education policy -- which is targeted at community colleges -- on STEM, and he has said little about the humanities. Others -- like this Florida commission or the Republican governor of North Carolina-- have gone farther, calling for students to pay more for humanities classes than those classes that supposedly produce useful, employer-desired skills. Literature, history, the other social sciences, under this approach, would be treated as frill classes, while business/finance and STEM courses would be considered the core of a good college education.

The impact is already being felt at community colleges. At Middlesex County College, one of the schools at which I teach, it is rare to come across students interested in writing, history, or philosophy. There are some, to be sure, but they are an extreme minority. There are few 200-level English courses offered in a given semester, and little appetite on the part of the college to sell students on the importance of the non-STEM, non-business curricula.

In recent years, some humanities professors have published op-ends offering defenses that essentially go like this: English classes will make you better at science, or music improves math skills. These notions maybe true, but they miss the larger point -- which is what King was getting at in 1967.

Technology and science are value-neutral endeavors. New discoveries, new machinery, new devices are not necessarily good or bad (itch some exceptions like nuclear and chemical/biological weapons).  What matters is how the new discoveries are used, and that "how" is a moral and ethical question that cannot be answered purely through the use of science. This is where the humanities come in, or what King calls the "internal" or the "soul."

King, writing 48 years ago, described it as a "gulf between our scientific progress and our moral progress."
One of the great problems of mankind is that we suffer from. A poverty of spirit which stands in glaring contrast o our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually.
This "moral and spiritual 'lag' must be redeemed," he continues, because
When scientific power outruns moral power, we end up with guided missiles and misguided men. When we foolishly minimize the internal of our lives and maximize the external, we sign the warrant for our destruction.
I don't want the religious language to obscure my point. King, obviously was a Christian minister, but he was speaking for something that is broader than organized religious belief. His point is that we need to nourish the contemplative and creative aspects of our lives, that we need novels and poetry, history and philosophy, religion and film and art and so on to remind us what it means to be human and -- this is key -- that we live in a world of uncertainty.

(I)t is precisely because science is so powerful that we need the humanities now more than ever. In your science, mathematics and engineering classes, you're given facts, answers, knowledge, truth. Your professors say, "This is how things are." They give you certainty. The humanities, at least the way I teach them, give you uncertainty, doubt and skepticism.

He follows with my favorite line from his piece: "The humanities are subversive. "

They undermine the claims of all authorities, whether political, religious or scientific. This skepticism is especially important when it comes to claims about humanity, about what we are, where we came from, and even what we can be and should be. Science has replaced religion as our main source of answers to these questions. Science has told us a lot about ourselves, and we're learning more every day.

But the humanities remind us that we have an enormous capacity for deluding ourselves. They also tell us that every single human is unique, different than every other human, and each of us keeps changing in unpredictable ways. The societies we live in also keep changing--in part because of science and technology! So in certain important ways, humans resist the kind of explanations that science gives us.

And they prepare us to be better citizens, to disobey,

. Part of the reason that our politics have become mired in nonsense is that we have come to expect easy answers. The citizenry has ceded its agency and now expects the a savior to arrive on the scene, whether it be Barack Obama on the left (we stupidly assumed everything would be fine when he was elected and, therefore, stopped the hard work of organizing and arguing) or Donald Trump et al on the right (it is true that the conservative movement is skeptical of science, but it is even more skeptical of questions and gray areas; it wants the certainty that a bloviator like Trump offers).

As Horgan says, the "humanities are more about questions than answers," and students in a humanities class are "going to wrestle with some ridiculously big questions."

Like, What is truth anyway? How do we know something is true? Or rather, why do we believe certain things are true and other things aren't? Also, how do we decide whether something is wrong or right to do, for us personally or for society as a whole?
In my classes in recent years, we have discussed nonviolent protest and how King might have responded to Baltimore and Ferguson, whether responsibility to one's community or family requires an obedience to authority, and how power should be used. My students are criminal justice majors, science majors and those seeking two-year technical degrees. Does someone who plans to be a dental hygienist or even a pharmacist need to read Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" or Gary Soto's poetry? Not for their technical work, but not reading and not discussing these works -- and many others -- will leave them poorer intellectually and spiritually.

We are more than our scientific parts, and if we are to respect humanity we have to find ways to understand what it is that makes us human, what it means to be alive. The arts and humanities do that better than almost anything. Or, at least, that is my take on it.


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