Posts Tagged ‘Condoleezza Rice’

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

Friday, September 7th, 2012

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.


Condoleezza Rice praises “Extraordinary, Ordinary People” at Stanford Bookstore

Monday, October 18th, 2010

Back at Stanford ... applause and protest (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Three Stanford police were outside the Stanford Bookstore at 4 p.m. today.  Book theft?  No, a book signing.  Condoleezza Rice, professor of political science and Hoover fellow, made a rare appearance — sans secret service or personal bodyguards — to promote her new memoir, Extraordinary, Ordinary People.

One student held a sign outside the glass doors: “Condi’s signature is dripping with blood.”  He was remonstrating with a swarthy man in a suit who seemed to be holding a photographer’s camera lens … no, it was a full Pepsi Cola bottle.  I had arrived a few minutes late, and didn’t have a chance to see the playing out of that little drama.

Fortunately, Prof. Rice was a few minutes later than I was.  I waded towards the basement “textbook area,” where students were crowding the balustrades and peering downwards.  I elbowed my way downstairs, mildly squashing myself beside two Asian students, who were speaking in Chinese and thumbing through the first pages of her book.

It’s diplomatic to say someone “hasn’t changed” in decades — but Condi Rice really hasn’t changed.  I remember her as a young associate professor of political science in the mid-80s.  A couple of decades and thousands of hours of workouts later (hers, not mine), she really does look the same, wearing a sleek brown jacket and trousers.

She didn’t talk about the controversial Bush years:  Everyone expects “the obligatory secretary of state memoir,” a policy memoir with names and insider’s details, she said.  “Indeed I have started and will finish that book.”

Instead, she wanted to talk about “extraordinary, ordinary people” John and Angelena Rice.  Her mother taught English and was one of Willie Mays’s early teachers.  She had told him, recalled Rice, “Son, you’re going to be a ball player, and if you have to leave class a few minutes early…”  The rest of her remark was lost in laughter.  Her father had been a Presbyterian minister and founder of Westminster Presbyterian Church.

Part of what makes extraordinary people, she said, is extraordinary times.  Birmingham, Alabama, was “the most segregated city in America,” she said, a place where “racism was quite hard-edged.”  For the Stanford students who formed most of the crowd, it was a description of the lost and unimaginable reality – for some, a world that died before even their parents were born.

Rice recalled the “horrors of Birmingham,” where she lost a childhood friend in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four young girls in 1963, during the time the city was called “Bombingham.”  Nevertheless, in the close-knit neighborhood of Titusville where she grew up, the children were taught “We could not have a hamburger at Woolworth’s, but you could become president of the United States.”

In addition to the secretary of state, the community produced the president of the University of Maryland at Baltimore, two Pulitzer prizewinners, and a host of other luminaries who flew by my ear faster than my pen could write.

Rice said she was taught: “There are no victims.  You cannot control your circumstances, but you can control your response to circumstances.  You will have to be twice as good.”  Adversity would give them an armor to defend themselves against “them.” “’They’ will have to respect you.  That was the mantra,” she said.  Education was the key.

Studying in Denver

She recalled her grandfather, a sharecropper who was determined to get an education.  After one year at Stillman College he was out of money and told he could not continue.  He asked how the other kids could stay.  They have scholarships, he was told; on the other hand, if he wanted to become a Presbyterian minister…  “That was exactly what I had in mind,” her grandfather decided on the spot.  His son adopted the same calling.

Rice remembered the collapse of Jim Crow and the passage of the Civil Rights Act.  She and her parents watched The Huntley-Brinkley Report announce the passage of the act, which the local news called “the so-called Civil Rights Act.”

The Rice family was anxious to find out the truth.  They went to a movie theater, and then a restaurant.  As they entered the restaurant, “People looked up, suddenly realized it wasn’t illegal, and went back to eating.”

However, a few weeks later she was served a hamburger that tasted odd.  Where’s the beef?  She showed her parents:  it was  onions, not hamburger.

She had trained as a pianist – but changed her mind when she faced a future of “teaching 13-year-olds to murder Beethoven.”

The default mode was international relations.

Her mother died of cancer in 1985. Her father died on Dec. 24, 2000 – a week before his daughter went to Washington as national security advisor.

Titusville kids valued education -- here she's in Boston

She admitted she misses them both, when she travels and still wishes to send them snapshots, or when she walked in the Holy Land she thought of her Presbyterian father, or when she went to Aïda, the first opera she had attended with her mother.

“But when you’ve been that close, your mother and father never leave you,” she said.  Her father would tell her, “You’re God’s child, and you are prepared for what is ahead of you.”

“There’s no better gift that they can give you – that sense that you are prepared for what is ahead of you.”

She started her brief talk after Stephen Krasner’s fulsome introduction, and was finished by 4.20 p.m.  The next hour and a half was reserved for book signing – row by row, to prevent chaos.  The crowds at the balustrades had doubled.

Outside, the Stanford police still lingered.  I asked one of them who the swarthy man was – not suprisingly, he was another policeman.

No protests?  The officer indicated about ten people, milling and languidly talking among themselves.  It didn’t look like much of a demo.  “They were doing the megaphone about 10 minutes ago,” the officer reassured me, and they had been passing out leaflets.  It was quiet now.

“That’s the way we like it,” he said. “Nice and peaceful.”