“Why do I need to know that?” Defending the humanities, social sciences in a techno world

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John Hennessy, Leslie Berlowitz, Steven Denning, Condi Rice (Courtesy American Academy of Arts & Sciences)

What’s a degree in the humanities or social sciences “good for”?  Can you get a job with a B.A. in German studies or history?  Should students finally do what their parents have been begging them to do all along, and go for physics or computer science instead?

William Perry (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

In the face of hard times and declining interest and enrollment, the humanities and even the social sciences are often seen as the “uncool” poor relations of the sciences and technologies.  Increasingly, they’re being asked to justify their presence at the academic table.

The American Academy of Arts & Sciences Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences has been working on the defense.

It’s preparing a report for Congress, to be delivered in early 2013.  As part of that process, it is holding several forums around the country that focus on various aspects of the humanities and social sciences.  The first, Humanities and Civil Society, was held in Cambridge, Mass., in July; the second was at Stanford on Tuesday.

The Stanford event, The Humanities & Social Sciences for International Relations, National Security, and Global Competitiveness, was  hosted by Stanford President John Hennessy, a member of the commission. Former Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and George Schultz, former Defense Secretary William Perry, and former Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry were among the 22 participants.

Leslie Berlowitz, president of the academy, asked all the participants to pool their thinking “so that we can talk cogently and with authority on why the humanities matter,” from kindergarten to graduate school.  She stressed the need “critical thinking, understanding other languages and culture … for public life, for our security, and for global competitiveness.”

I know what you’re thinking: that’s not what the humanities are for.  Learning how to write a smashing sonnet will not make you richer or  the nation more secure or more globally competitive.

However, even with that proviso, the discussion evoked some powerful anecdotes about serving in foreign wars or the diplomatic service, and the need for cross-cultural understanding and foreign language study.

“Why do I need to know that?”

Perry recalled his experience in “diplomacy that dealt with incredible danger” over 65 years of his life, first as an 18-year-old army soldier sent to occupied Japan.  “The glamor of war turned into the horror of war,” he said.

David Kennedy (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

The firebombing of Tokyo left more dead than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.  When he went to Okinawa, a city the size of San Jose, “I was not prepared for what I saw there.  Not a building was left standing.”  Working with Hungarians after the brutal Soviet suppression of 1956, “I came to know some of them and know their personal stories.”  The Cuban Missile Crisis “was a very moving experience for a 32-year-old.  I truly believed it would be the last day on earth.”

“Deterrence, as important as it was, is very, very dangerous and can easily spin out of control, leading to nuclear holocaust,” he said.

Facing the enormous Red Army, America chose to “offset numerical superiority with technical superiority” – with smart intelligence systems, stealth weapons, the internet, he said.

Whoops, we’re back to technology again, aren’t we?  Perry voiced hope for a world without nuclear weapons – maybe we’ll go back to our ploughshares and poems then.

Condoleezza Rice made a polished presentation that cut to the chase: “I think we’re a bit on the defensive about the humanities and social sciences,” said Rice.  “I myself am a social scientist and a musician. I can’t understand why we are on the defensive.”

“Our world has become quite instrumental,” she said, noting the rise of the social media and the transformations in the traditional media.  “The attention span is a minute and a half, if that.”

Condi Rice (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

“The question is: ‘Why do I need to know that?’ If you try to defend the humanities and social sciences in terms of its usefulness in the next week, it’s hard to make a connection.”

Instead, she said we must help students “to understand that we have a past, are living in the present, and hope for a better future.  One has to know something about how human beings have addressed important issues in the past.”

“We also need to understand us.  We are, as Americans, losing the sense of us,” she said. “One way not to fear they is to have a strong sense of us.”

In the era of texting and twitter, many students have a reduced capacity to “use evidence to support and make an argument.”  She asks students if they knew the case they are trying to make, or whether they simply “expect to meander towards the end and hope for the best?”  (Why did my mind drift immediately towards Montaigne?)

She argued for a more rigorous training in writing, pushing students to go beyond what they feel and believe to articulate what they know and have learned.  “The well-argued, well-written two-pagers can make a difference,” she said – even with a U.S. president.

“You can’t defend what you don’t know.”

Eikenberry, who is also a Chinese specialist, continued some of the same themes: “In my many talks with the People’s Liberation Army, they never asked me a question about Tang Dynasty poetry.  They never asked me questions about Napoleonic history.  They asked questions about American history, American economy.”

“If we don’t understand ourselves, we can’t do it well,” he said. “You can’t preserve something you don’t understand.  You can’t defend what you don’t know.  If you aspire to be a transnational bridge, you have to be grounded on both sides of the river.”

Get to the point, Michel.

Lt. Col. Joel Vowell described 21 years as an active duty infantry officer and recent work with tribal organizations in Afghanistan.  He recalled one incident in which choosing a site for a well meant that the American troops had inadvertently taken sides in a 400-year conflict.  “I had to educate myself in linguistics, political science, sociology, geography, media studies …” well, I lost track at that point of the various fields he self-educated himself in. Lots.

Pulitzer prizewinning historian David Kennedy said the humanities give us “the ability to operate in an ambiguous environment.”

“Dealing with ambiguity is the essence of the humanities,” he said.  “Interpretation, reconciliation, appreciating the points of origins of different positions – humanities are at home with ambiguity. It is our stock and trade.”

But I return to my earlier point:  I think that’s confusing an effect with the raison d’etre. It’s not what the humanities are for, or rather, it’s only a small part of what the humanities are for.  The humanities … well, make us more deeply human, but even that description is way too reductive to be much use.

Given the session’s title, it’s not surprising that there was a tendency to boil down the humanities and social sciences to foreign language learning and cultural understanding – rather than, say, the worthiness of efforts to make an immortal sculpture or ponder the mysteries of   epistemology.

But it would appear that apples and oranges were on the table. I’m not so sure social sciences are in quite the same pickle (to continue my jostling, gustatory metaphors) as the humanities.  Psychology, for example, might be a suitable entry point for med school, political science for law school – more than, say, East Asian art leads to anything obvious, other than a PhD in the subject.  Of course, there are gray areas: I’ve had quarrels with people about whether history is a humanities or a social science.  But social sciences are by definition social, and the humanities?  At their finest, they lead us on an interior journey, guiding to individual, unique understandings, and inoculating us along the way (with varying degrees of success) against groupthink.

However, if both are hot in the pot, it may not matter which one has hit the boiling point first.

 


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One Response to ““Why do I need to know that?” Defending the humanities, social sciences in a techno world”

  1. Rama Says:

    Dear learned, What you need to know that would be foremost to man’s life and why do you need to know it ? Please, kindly help me to answer these two questions. Thank you.

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