Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Recently in the New York Times, “In Tough Times, Humanities Must Justify Their Worth” (Arts pages, Feb. 25), the author Patricia Cohen argued that because of the hard economic times, the humanities are under increasing scrutiny to justify their usefulness. Otherwise, they are the first disciplines to be cut from colleges and universities.

The reality of this hit home. I had almost forgotten that I has spent eight years of my life in '60s at universities studying Near Eastern languages. At the end of my studies, during president Nixon's tenure, we were suffering through difficult times. It was the end of the Viet Nam war, speed limits were reduced to 55 MPH to save gasoline, and the world was crazy. And, I couldn't get a job with a PhD in my field of study. Life turned out fine for me, and I had a wonderful career. But I have often looked back and wondered what it would have been like to work in my field. It looks like a similar era is imminently upon us.

It is a tragedy that value is placed on knowledge solely in economic terms. Perhaps it has always been this way. Or is it only a product of the 20th century? Much of what we suffer in the nation and in the world is not the result of too little economic knowledge, too little science, too little engineering, or too little business. Will we overcome the staggering losses of the wars in the Middle East with more engineers? Will we regain our sullied international reputation with more scientists? Will we regain our economic footing with more economists?

I cringe every time I hear the current phrase "Human Capital", as if people are like money. Perhaps that is what our leaders, civil, government, and industrial, think of us. And I mourn the loss of "Personnel" departments and grimace when I hear "Human Resources" departments, as if we are lumps of coal in a factory. We are dehumanized daily on television, and on the highway when police officers refer to people as "individuals", as in "I stopped this individual for speeding." And to lawbreakers as "perps", as in "We arrested this perp for breaking and entering." Men and women are now "males" and "females". Flowers can be male and female! Even animals have special names: cow, bull, calf, steer, heifer, to appropriately distinuish age and gender. How much more human and dignified to call us by the special names the English language has available for us as people: men, women, boys, and girls.

We should all know how to read a newspaper intelligently and with a critical eye. When the citizenry is educated and schooled in the humanities, it can make critical judgements based on facts; each citizen can form an opinion on his or her own knowledge using the tools we as a civilization have inherited from our forefathers. We would not need to rely solely on the opinions of others. The study of philosophy opens our minds and gives us the ability to question the statements and opinions of others. The study of the scientific method gives us the tools to constantly examine new discoveries and increase the knowledge base of the humankind. Learning history should help us prevent repeating our past mistakes...perhaps. The study of foreign languages should help us enjoy and understand those of other nations. The love of literature and the arts, the crown of civilization, has always been held as that which separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.

The relegation of the humanities to the basements and attics of ivory towered buildings has allowed us to lose sight of the values we should cherish most: our freedoms, our civil rights, and our humanistic view of our fellow citizens. When we lose the collective knowledge of civilization, we are more prone to accept the simplistic rantings of tyrants and demagogues. We are willing to be led by radical fundamentalists, willing to believe the most simplistic answers to very difficult questions. We begin to look upon education as elitist and not desirable. We are willing to murder our fellow man in the most inhumane ways, through terror and torture. We can then believe that war will solve the problems of the world.

We must never forget who we are; not forget where we have come from and what a long journey the rise of civilization has been. And particularly now that the Earth has, as of March 1, 2009, 6,763,611,245 people to support, mostly in very dense clusters, we must learn to get along with each other better than in the past.

1 comment:

Bill B. said...

Excellent reaction to the excellent piece in the times. Our best science graduate students here have come from liberal arts undergraduate institutions. They need not just critical thinking, but also creativity. Both are better inculcated from liberal arts backgrounds.