Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Defending the Humanities

(via Instapundit)  Here is an interesting response to an attempt to get more money from Congress to spend on Humanities programs.  I don't know much about the specific academy, and I won't offer an opinion on what the proper spending levels should be.  But what's interesting is how the Humanities are defended and suggestions as to how they should be defended. 
From the linked article:
Many of the commissioners also appear in a 7-minute accompanying video, which begins with the actor (and commissioner) John Lithgow explaining that the humanities are the "beautiful flower" at the end of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math.)  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."
I like the poetry of the STEM part, but I can't imagine that convincing anyone.  It sounds like BS to me, and I'm already a fan of the Humanities.  From further on:
I don't really want to be obstructionist.  The humanities are important and, in principle, deserve a robust defense.  But 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.  
The closing is rather good:
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. 
That seems right to me.  And let me throw out a suggestion for a direction of that work.  (One of many, to be sure!)  The ancient Greeks and Romans worked hard at figuring out the flaws of democracy.  They knew that the system wasn't perfect, that it had many pitfalls.  We face many of those same problems.  Wouldn't it helpful to know what they thought and tried before?  What solutions worked and which ones bombed terribly?  And yet, we don't seem to be getting that kind of guidance, do we?
Blossoms are fine, but we could use some stronger material.  Some strong wood and metal.  Frankly, we're not getting that.

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