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How the Death of the Humanities Will Kill Science

Cesar Ojeda

James Banks - published on 03/15/14

That is not the way the world works. The problems of tomorrow are always different than the problems of today and the solutions that work today are not going to answer all of the issues that will arise over the next decade. Adapting to tomorrow can only be done from living in society itself. This is because the tired adage that “necessity is the mother of invention” is true and the more people need (or think they need), the more they will invent.

There are plenty of societies that have—or used to have—education systems that were almost exclusively dedicated to training students for science and engineering. China does this now, just as the Soviet Union did in its own time. But, despite how fashionable it is to claim that a dearth of math and science skills endanger our future, this has not proved true in the past. Japan has consistentlyranked highly in academic achievement but the country’s economic performance has not reflected these successes.

Educators and technocrats incorrectly believe that we know or have thought of everything that we need for the next economic boom or scientific revolution. It is just a matter of giving the next generation the answers that we already have.  But it is less important to train people how to get to the next frontier as it is to educate them so that they will be able to discern what frontiers are worth going to. Theoretically, this is what a liberal arts education is for. In practice, it is not always true. The SS had its share of PhD’s and, on a more mundane level, humanities departments have tended toward groupthink during the past generation in ways that have probably not enhanced students’ critical thinking skills or creativity.

But even if the liberal arts no longer serve their traditional purpose, that does not mean that it is not a purpose which is worth serving. The chief value of a liberal arts education is that it encourages debate and disagreement. Unlike mathematics, there is rarely an answer to the question that is clearly correct. Unlike the natural sciences, there is not the trend toward a greater approximation of the truth. Some statements about art or literature are truer than others, but there is never any one perspective that will serve indefinitely. This is not because the “best which has been thought and said” has changed over time; rather, the world has. Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex or Mary Shelley’sFrankenstein cannot tell us definitely what we should think of scientism or posthumanism, but they at least force us to confront the darker corners of enlightenment toward which we are reluctant to caste our eyes.

But the humanities can do more than help us understand what we should not be doing. They can help us contemplate what we should be doing instead. We might be a long way from the classical world which separate the liberal arts (artes liberales) from the technical arts (artes serviles) according to whether or not one was free or a slave. But the liberal arts are still indispensable to the extent that they foster intellectual curiosity and the desire to learn for its own sake. The sciences can do this also and few scientists ever achieve an important milestone without the ability to think creatively, but science educators do not always understand the implications of the field in which they want to educate; if they believe that they can provide all the education that people need for the future, they have already failed. Ideas are not an instrument for the future but they are objectives worthy of pursuit for their own sake.

Education initiatives are usually about one silver bullet policy or another, whether it is a national curriculum or vouchers or putting younger enthusiastic teachers in classrooms. But fostering intellectual curiosity is not something that can be easily put into a policy or a curriculum. It depends on more than this; it depends on the culture of the school and the values of the students and instructors. But no educator should begin to craft policy without recognizing that the next technological revolution will not come from people who always have the right answer; it will come from people whom learning has endowed with enough intellectual curiosity to feel comfortable when they get the wrong one.

James Banks is the editor of the Play section at Humane Pursuits.

Courtesy of Humane Pursuits

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