Saturday, February 12, 2011

Why save the humanities?

On February 10, 2011, David Skorton, president of Cornell University, wrote in The Washington Post a article entitled, "Don't cut humanities." In it, he defended the importance of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He wrote:
But while we debate the RSC proposal and others now on the table, let's prevent a train wreck in the making: the proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities. This is the federal agency that funds research on our national history, our cultural heritage, and our civic values.
I applaud our president speaking out on behalf of this important institution in the United States, especially in the academic world where priorities continue to emphasize STEM. Many scholars have noted the importance of the humanities (e.g. Martha Nussbaum's Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities which is but one title among many). He stresses the importance of researching and learning about our history, culture, and civic values. These points are especially important for me because they acknowledge that the ways we live are contentious and are not prescripted. He study history and culture to learn from them, not simply to look back at events that occurred for the sake of studying history. As Hannah Arendt reminds us, we make and remake the world. We don't simply inherit what has come before. Because of this, we must continue to wrestle with and question what is, what ought to be, and to attempt to suggest ideas for how we might bridge that gap. This is indeed important work that shapes both individuals and society. It is important work because, as Skorton later notes in his article, "our most pressing and complex problems--worldwide--will not be solved by science alone." Amen!

While I agree that science alone will not do, the rest of that paragraph concerns me. It reads:
As a physician and scientist, I applaud such investments. But make no mistake: our most pressing and complex problems--worldwide--will not be solved by science alone. As just one example, local cultures and values hugely impact the willingness of people to embrace scientific discoveries, from genetically modified foods to vaccines--and the understanding of these cultures and values is the domain of the humanities and the social sciences.
While saying that science can't solve everything, Skorton doesn't quite align with me. I feel uncomfortable with the notion that the humanities' role might help us to better understand those who don't--for cultural or ethical reasons--embrace science as if the worth of the humanities only comes from its ability to make genetically modified foods acceptable to individuals or communities who might be resistant to such modifications to food. It seems to me that the defense of the humanities in this context only reinforces the privileged position of scientific knowledge.

Overall, I agree that we should invest in research that isn't solely focused on measuring the relationship between variables. But I'm uncomfortable with not only some of the arguments Skorton makes in this article, but with what's been happening on his own campus: Cornell University. While writing in the Washington Post, the Department of Education here at Cornell is being dismantled. As a member of the education community at Cornell, I can say without reservation questions about civic values emerge in classroom discussions. Wrestling with how we might shape the world through work with others has been central to my coursework as a Ph.D. student. As I've written before, Skorton has spoken about the importance of supporting the humanities here. So why, in the midst of immense building projects and financial support for the sciences, are we reducing and (honestly) eliminating departments such as Education is we do indeed care so much about our collective future and acknowledge that science isn't going to provide all the answers?

Save fields of study that help to us think about, reflect on, and engage in work with fellow citizens. But don't do it simply to help Monsanto.