Are there better ways to defend the humanities? Peter Wood thinks so.

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gerbera

If a petal falls in the forest, does anyone hear?

The disses continue to roll in for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Heart of the Matter, a 61-page report, plus appendices, defending the humanities, and attempting to cajole Congress into opening its wallet.

I just watched the video (it’s below). I agree with Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, over at Minding the Campus, that the beautifully produced video is … well, a bit lightweight.  He writes:  “I have to wonder how carefully thought-out The Heart of the Matter is.  If the goal was merely to perform some old songs from the songbook, or to twirl the lasso around in lasso tricks, I guess these bland formulations will do.  But it would have been nice to see an intellectually more serious effort.  The humanities haven’t existed forever.  They are a division of human inquiry and teaching that grew out of a particular tradition.  Humanistic learning was, for many generations, deemed essential for the man who sought to enter public life, and it was also taken as the indispensable grounding for the worthy life of a free individual.”

Here’s my own gripe: the film opens with  actor John Lithgow explaining that the humanities are the “beautiful flower” at the end of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).  Huh?  Is, say, the history of the Stalinist purges somehow secondary and subsidiary to the newest widget?  This does nothing to challenge the notion of the humanities as the poor, slightly dotty cousin of the “real” sciences.  You know, the ones that get you a “real” job.

Wood takes on both the written report and the accompanying video:

wood

He wants more.

With a piano softly playing Christian Sinding‘s Rustles of Spring in the background and a camera exploring the petals of a yellow gerbera, Lithgow continues, “Without the blossom, the stem is completely useless.”  Cut to George Lucas, Rustling Spring pianissimo: “The sciences are the how and the humanities are the why.” Cut to the Milky Way with Lucas’s voiceover, segueing to architect Billie Tsien, “The measurable is what we know and the immeasurable is what the heart searches for.”

The video portion of the Heart of the Matter is beautifully produced, as I suppose one might expect from a commission that included Ken Burns as well as George Lucas.  But it is, I suspect, not terribly persuasive.  It comes across as the high-minded extolling high-mindedness and perhaps thinking a little too well of themselves for their act of generosity.

After enumerating several other problems with the report, he concludes.

But that’s just a petal falling from the “beautiful flower.”  The video, with Rustles of Spring tinkling underneath the somber voices of Yo-Yo Ma, Earl Lewis, David Brooks, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Sandra Day O’Connor, etc. is little more than a parade of balloons but it has the charm of well-picked metaphors.  The report, alas, has not even that.

Is there a better way to promote the humanities?  I am inclined to think the humanities thrive when the humanists are self-evidently offering good and important work.  The humanities decline when they descend into triviality.  The answer to a nation skeptical of these disciplines is not more balloons, nor better metaphors, or even better-crafted reports.  It is better work.

See what you think of Wood’s argument here.  And don’t forget to watch the video below:

 


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2 Responses to “Are there better ways to defend the humanities? Peter Wood thinks so.”

  1. Jeff Says:

    Perhaps it’s petty of me to point this out, but Lithgow’s “stem” image doesn’t work. Stems aren’t “completely useless” without flowers. Large and small, they provide food, wood, medicines, chemical additives, amber, and resins and fibers we use to make furniture, rubber, cork, textiles, and countless other things. They also provide habitats for essential lichens.

    (My humanities education taught me how to look that up and post an off-the-cuff blog comment. “Critical thinking”–woohoo!)

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Guess they didn’t do that science thingumme, Jeff.

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