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How the Death of the Humanities Will Kill Science

Cesar Ojeda

James Banks - published on 03/15/14

Discovery comes from curiosity.

Science 
is killing the humanities—I was 
not the first to argue this point and I probably will not be the last either. America’s leaders are hastening the death, both by 
the priorities they setand the 
political appointments that they make. While many scholars will probably lament the passing of the humanities and some will probably cry “Philistine” with every dollar that the National Endowment for the Arts loses, some have already begun to stoically accept the argument that the humanities are not worth saving. In a representative piece, 
John Ellis writes of the decline:

"Freshman core courses that gave an overview of the achievements of Western culture were . . . abolished almost everywhere, mandatory courses in this nation’s history and institutions went too, and literature departments even stopped requiring that Shakespeare be an essential part of the English literature major. Even when formerly mandatory courses are still offered as options, they are often presented through the lens of a jaundiced view of our cultural past that tends to discourage further study."


Ellis identifies a real trend, even though it is not entirely fair—reading Shakespeare might not be
required as an English lit major, but the English lit major who graduates without having read Shakespeare will have had to performed a near Herculean task to avoid 
Hamlet
Othello or 
Macbeth.

However, even if the humanities departments—in their current state—will not be missed, Ellis does not answer the question of whether the humanities, as they should be taught, are still worth preserving. He may not have an answer, but I would give a resounding “Yes.” Today we might see the sciences are killing the humanities, but tomorrow we will find out that the death of the humanities will kill the sciences too.

I did not fully appreciate that the humanities were a necessary supplement to the sciences until a few years ago. It happened at a conference on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education where America’s foremost experts on the subject came together to wring their hands over how doomed we all were because there “weren’t enough students interested in science.” Some of the speakers had impressive credentials: one of the speakers was 
Dean Kamen, the man who invented the Segway; another was 
Bill Nye, the Science Guy.

Nonetheless, as I participated in the focus groups, I got a sense that America’s science educators were strangely disconnected from the way that people live and think. Most of the policy recommendations that they came up with sounded platitudinous: “We need to change the cultural image people have of the nerdy scientist.” Some of the policies or initiatives proposed were even less realistic: An American version of 
Doctor Who perhaps?

But, more broadly, the problem with these events is their objective of “maintaining the pipeline” to help bring about the replacements for today’s current STEM employees.  As the administrators and officials lamented how “American kids were not interested in the science jobs we have for them” I could not help but be reminded of a passage in 
Heart of Darkness that William Deresiewicz 
originally called my attention to:

"He was a common trader, from his youth up employed in these parts—nothing more. He was obeyed, yet he inspired neither love nor fear, nor even respect. He inspired uneasiness. That was it! Uneasiness. Not a definite mistrust—just uneasiness—nothing more. You have no idea how effective such a . . . a . . . faculty can be. He had no genius for organizing, for initiative, or for order even. . . . He had no learning, and no intelligence. His position had come to him—why? . . . He originated nothing, he could keep the routine going—that’s all. But he was great. He was great by this little thing that it was impossible to tell what could control such a man. He never gave that secret away."

As Deresiewicz points out, this is pretty much a perfect description of what bureaucracy is like:  It is filled with people who maintain the status quo, but not the people who defined what the status quowould be. This is not to say that the people at the conference were bureaucrats; some of them were entrepreneurial or accomplished—they had to be to get where they were. But they essentially wanted to train the next generation to fill the exact roles and have the exact knowledge that they had themselves.

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