Tag Archives: humanities

“We value the ancient, the antique, the quaint, and the outmoded.”

Why should teaching the past matter? It matters because teaching any pre-modern culture exposes students to ways of being that may be alien to them, a form of ontological diversity just as important as the more familiar kinds we hear so much about today. Many years ago, in a lecture at my college, the classicist Danielle Allen argued that education is fundamentally about knowing the foreign. Like Allen, I share that conviction and, in my own courses, daily ask students to explore the foreign battlefields of Homeric Troy or to inhabit the psychological terrain of Augustine. Both the Iliad and the Confessions offer examples of imaginative mindscapes as foreign to many students as any far-flung land they might visit on a study-abroad trip. And such foreign intellectual encounters, so familiar in early literature and history courses, help students cultivate virtues such as empathy and tolerance. […]

History also teaches us that the pursuit of knowledge is often a digressive process. Unlike the natural sciences where knowledge and learning are generally linear, experimentation and research leading to new insights and replacing previous conclusions, humanistic knowledge proceeds haltingly. In the natural sciences, one often draws the conclusion that new knowledge is better than old knowledge. In the humanities, we value the ancient, the antique, the quaint, and the outmoded all in the interest of thickening and enriching our understanding of human life.

While much of that life has involved regrettable episodes, history reminds us of what it means to be questing and creative and to transcend the limits of our human predicament, as Julian of Norwich or Galileo or Mary Rowlandson once did. Studying the past has been shown to remove feelings of isolation that many young people in contemporary America report as their greatest fear. Further, today’s younger generation may learn resilience, courage, and fortitude through an imaginative engagement of the people of the past.

–Carla Arnell, All for the Now–or the World Well Lost?


White tears white tears

The most popular public forum at Reed is Facebook, where social tribes coalesce and where the most emotive and partisan views get the most attention. “Facebook conversations at Reed bring out the extreme aspects of political discourse on campus,” said Yuta, a sophomore who recently co-founded a student group, The Thinkery, “dedicated to critical and open discussion.”(The Atlantic used first names for students out of concern for online harassment.) Raphael, the founder of the Political Dissidents Club, warned incoming students over Facebook that “Reed’s culture can be stifling/suffocating and narrow minded.”

It can also be bullying. When the parent of a freshman rebuked RAR for derailing a lecture, a RAR supporter tagged the parent’s employer in a post. In mid-April, when students were studying for finals, a RAR leader grew frustrated that more supporters weren’t showing up to protest Hum 110. In a post viewable only to Reed students, the leader let loose:

To all the white & able(mentally/physically) who don’t come to sit-ins(ever, anymore, rarely): all i got is shade for you. [… If] you ain’t with me, then I will accept that you are against me. There’s 6 hums left, I best be seein all u phony ass white allies show-up. […] How you gonna be makin all ur white supremacy messes & not help clean-up your own community by coming and sitting for a frickin hour & still claim that you ain’t a laughin at a lynchin kinda white.

The RAR leader proceeded to call out at least 15 students by name. One named Patrick defended himself, saying in part, “I didn’t realize this was [your] opinion of me as a friend. … I will not give you my support simply because you are leading a noble cause.” The leader referred to that defense as “white supremacy.” Another leader used a vulgar insult, followed by “White tears white tears.”

Non-white students weren’t spared; a group of them agreed to “like” Patrick’s comment in a show of support. A RAR member demanded those “non-black pocs [people of color]” explain themselves, calling them “anti-black pos [pieces of shit].” Another member tried to get Patrick on track: “Hey man, everyone getting called out on here, me included, is getting a second chance tomorrow to wake up and make the right decision.”

–Chris Bodenner, The Surprising Revolt at the Most Liberal College in the Country

Science fiction capabilities, not scientific capabilities

Many of Rid’s tales unfold in the Defense Department and in the General Electric factory in Schenectady, New York, where Vietnam-driven businessmen, engineers, and government men created (unsuccessful) prototypes of robot weapons, and where Kurt Vonnegut sets his first novel, the cybernetics-inspired Player Piano. It turns out, although Rid does not say this in so many words, that science fiction has been as instrumental in the rise of the digital as any set of switches. Consider, for example, the creation of the Agile Eye helmet for Air Force pilots who need to integrate “cyberspace” (their term) with meatspace. The officer in charge reports, according to Rid, “We actually used the same industrial designers that had designed Darth Vader’s helmet.” This fluid movement between futuristic Hollywood design, science fiction, and the DOD is a recurring feature of Rise of the Machines. Take the NSA’s internal warning that “[l]aymen are beginning to expect science fiction capabilities and not scientific capabilities” in virtual reality. Or Rid’s account of the so-called “cypherpunks” around Timothy May. Their name was cribbed from the “cyberpunk” science fiction genre (“cypher” refers to public-key encryption), and they were inspired by novels like Vernor Vinge’s True Names (1981), one on a list of recommended books for the movement on which not a single nonfiction text figures.

–Leif Weatherby, The Cybernetic Humanities

Only willful, tyrannical intelligence

“I have never denied that knowledge of history, culture, and society was possible; I have only denied that a scientific knowledge, of the sort actually attained in the study of physical nature, was possible. But I have tried to show that, even if we cannot achieve a properly scientific knowledge of human nature, we can achieve another kind of knowledge about it, the kind of knowledge which literature and art in general give us in easily recognizable examples. Only a willful, tyrannical intelligence could believe that the only kind of knowledge we can aspire to is that represented by the physical sciences. My aim has been to show that we do not have to choose between art and science, that indeed we cannot do so in practice, if we hope to continue to speak about culture as against nature—and, moreover, speak about it in ways that are responsible to all the various dimensions of our specifically human being.”

—Hayden White, “Introduction: Tropology, Discourse, and the Modes of Human Consciousness” (1978)

The value of texture

“To explain organic diversity, biologists have built a theory of evolution whose major tenets are couched in math and generally agreed. To explain cultural diversity, the humanities have offered only a succession of incommensurable interpretive fashions and uncountable particular studies, many of which, to be sure, enrich our understanding of this writer or that, but which only add texture to the tapestry of culture and do nothing to explain its whole.


Under the Pax Scientia criticism will continue, but be tamed. The epistemological feuds of the 20th century will yield to the technical quarrels typical of science. The scene will be less tumultuous, some will say less exciting, but it will be a renaissance.”

—Armand Marie Leroi, “One Republic of Learning”

“Leroi doesn’t seem to grasp that much criticism — and much of the criticism that has mattered the most — isn’t concerned with assigning a one-phrase summary of the “meaning” of an entire work of art, but is rather intensely focused on the details that are too small and too distinctive for algorithmic attention. When Keats writes, “Now more than ever seems it rich to die,” what does “rich” connote? Might it be ironic? (After all, the ironic use of “rich” — “Oh, that’s rich” — goes back to the seventeenth century.) No algorithm can ever tell, because algorithms aggregate, and the question here is about a single unrepeatable instance of a word. Nor can any aggregated information tell us anything about the torn cloth at the elbow of the disciple in Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus, or the bizarre alternations of the madly driven rhythms and ethereal voices in the Confutatis of Mozart’s Requiem.”

—Alan Jacobs, Pax Scientia: Thanks, But I’ll Pass”

Let me add a modest palimpsest to this discussion. Science can do much to describe the origins, practices, effects, and the likely purposes of humanistic values, morals, and ethics. Without claiming that science can never offer its own moral paradigm, I would like to say that the texture of the tapestry of culture, as Leroi puts it, offers itself to a number of interpretive experiences—many of them may be computable. Perhaps even all rational or theorized interpretive practices could (conceivably) be digitized and/or automated to some extent.

But there are other experiences. There is, of course, the pure experience of the tapestry: the immersive experience that is subjective and not consciously interpretive. Most academics do not write about untheorizable interpretations. Approaching a text without consciously using or being aware of some sort of systematic hermeneutic framework is nigh-unthinkable. (For a host of very good reasons.) But there is such a thing as an irrational interpretation. One that defies logic and systemization. For lack of a better word, let’s call it “mystic.”

Even if some programmer one day designs an algorithm that can assign meaning to a single, unrepeatable instance of a word, there will remain a mystic paradigm just beyond its scope. If science colonizes letters, the humanities may even actively take refuge in the mystic. Who knows if this transformation would be catastrophic, salutary, or (heaven forbid) inconsequential?

Don’t get me wrong: I am not reserving to the humanities the exclusive rights to discovering meaning. But value—perhaps that is the most mystic term of all. To the best of my understanding, there has not yet existed a value that could be signified without human(istic) intervention at some point. To understand the meaning of any value requires some sort of hermeneutics; and given the complexities of the universe—not the least part of which is irrational lil’ humanity, with its vaunted science—I do not foresee a time ever coming to pass in which the relationship between meaning and value will not require at least some flicker of mystic insight from which interpretation can begin. For value does not flow from meaning, but meaning from value. Who can explain the meaning of a tapestry’s texture unless one finds value in the texture itself?

A valuation of the humanities

“Today the world’s biggest problems have indeed grown big enough to concern the very survival of the human species: environmental catastrophe, genocidal weapons, and fragile technological and economic systems each put the species—not just individuals—at risk. But the solutions to these problems, in as much as they can be achieved, will be essentially, and not merely accidentally, social and political in nature.


There is no science that can save us from the historically embedded habits and the wider structures that cause us, seemingly instinctively, to value the lives of some more than others based on the skin color, gender, or any other of a number of social markers of the Other. And the only solutions for structural problems within the law are both better law and better practice of the law.

These problems require citizens capable of reflecting on matters like discrimination and the law, and leaders who understand that the world’s problems can’t be fixed simply through technology. The world’s largest problems are not equivalent to the problem of gravity. If they were, perhaps science and technology could solve them. We’d just need more well-funded Newtons and Einsteins. Rather, we have problems that are inherently political and/or social in nature and that require political and/or social solutions. Moreover, it should be obvious by now that scientific and technological “fixes” often create new ones (e.g., industrialism’s creation of global warming, genocidal killing machines, and antibiotics).

So while it seems silly to say it, it needs to be said, in light of the legitimate value political and academic leaders are putting on life: The arts and humanities save lives!”

—Ned O’Gorman, “The Arts and Humanities Save Lives!”

Startup evangelism

“Is this a book about building better businesses or building better people and cultures? To Thiel’s credit, these issues are deeply interrelated if not, in some sense, the same. In this regard, Zero to One possesses a distinctly moral—at times, almost apocalyptic—dimension. Thiel’s vision isn’t just entrepreneurial; it’s also ethical and romantic.

The question, “What valuable company is nobody building?” is a derivative of his central question, “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” There are still secrets to uncover, frontiers to explore, he emphasizes: Thiel wants to re-instill a sense of wonder, to help us see the world “as fresh and strange as it was to the ancients who saw it first.” It’s these touches that lend Thiel the aura of being something more than just another Silicon Valley millionaire, even if he does quote Shakespeare like a soundbite.

But the book’s humanist strain also undermines Thiel’s notorious denigration of higher education. Thiel believes that academic degrees have become status markers of dubious benefit to society and the individual. He has compared university administrators to sub-prime mortgage brokers and tenured professors to sixteenth-century Catholic priests selling indulgences in the form of diplomas—secular salvation for modern souls. The Thiel Foundation offers students under age 20 scholarships to pursue a startup instead of going to school.

But the critical inquiry Thiel advocates is exactly what a liberal arts curriculum is designed to teach. “Will this business still be around a decade from now?” can only be answered, he believes, by “think[ing] critically about the qualitative characteristics of your business.” His book is, perhaps inadvertently, a plea for the necessity of humanist thought in the business world. This alone is fairly radical in a business culture that tends to think a literature degree means you can identify a simile and not much else. Thiel himself has benefited—financially and intellectually—from this background: Zero to One could only be written by someone who possesses not only tremendous business expertise, but also a deep and broad education. His insistence that you can get along without the taint of a formal education is hypocritical at best.”

Elizabeth Winkler, “Peter Thiel Is a Closet Humanist”