Who Needs Humanities?

Phil Hansten | February 3, 2013

"Leucocephalus" Phil Hansten

“Leucocephalus” Phil Hansten

It is the debate that never dies. With finite (and often dwindling) resources for university and K-12 education, legislators and educators make cuts. Sadly, we invariably round up the usual suspects and haul them off to the gallows: music, art, theater, philosophy, literature, and languages, both ancient and modern. The executioners mean well, but they ignore a basic truth: science and technology without the humanities (i.e., knowledge without wisdom) is a recipe for societal disaster.

The controversy is not new. Over a century ago Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?) wrote a marvelous essay entitled, “An Historical Monograph Written in 4930.” (free on iBooks, etc.) Bierce is most famous for his acerbic but hilarious book “The Devil’s Dictionary” but in this essay he pretends to be writing in the year 4930 about the demise of “ancient America” which he says fell apart in the 1990s. He may have been a few decades early on the timing, but his analysis of the etiology of America’s final decline is stunningly prescient. Bierce cites two primary causes:

The Politics of Greed. Bierce identifies selfishness as a fundamental motive of human behavior, and describes how it destroyed American politics: “Politics, which may have had something of the contest of principles, becomes a struggle of interests, and its methods are frankly serviceable to personal and class advantage.” This is precisely what is happening in America today, in which the plutocracy is in control, and our political system has degenerated into a dysfunctional charade. There is little nuance… little insightful analysis… little genuine concern for humanity… just predatory self-interest punctuated by paroxysms of self-righteous demagoguery and rhinocerine obstinacy.

Prosperity at All Costs. Bierce then turns to the related issue of our unflagging focus on wealth and prosperity as our raison d’être. In a magnificent passage, he describes what “ancient America” ultimately sacrificed to achieve its mercenary goals:

“It is not to be denied that this unfortunate people was at one time singularly prosperous, in so far as national wealth is a measure and proof of prosperity. Among nations it was the richest nation. But at how great a sacrifice of better things was its wealth obtained! By the neglect of all education except that crude, elementary sort which fits men for the coarse delights of business and affairs but confers no capacity of rational enjoyment; by exalting the worth of wealth and making it the test and touchstone of merit; by ignoring art, scorning literature and despising science, except as these might contribute to the glutting of the purse … by pitilessly crushing out of their natures every sentiment and aspiration unconnected with accumulation of property, these civilized savages and commercial barbarians attained their sordid end.”

This remarkable prophecy so accurately describes our current sorry state that it is almost as though Bierce were a time traveler who observed the America of today, and then traveled back a century to write about it. Bierce was basically arguing that, in order to remain civilized, societies need the humanities as a counterweight to the hegemony of technology. I think he was correct.

This balance is important for individuals as well as societies. One need go no further than Ernest Becker to see what happens when a person with a first rate mind has a deep, organic understanding of both the sciences and the humanities. If Becker had been “just” a talented anthropologist, or if he had been “just” extremely well read in philosophy, literature, religion, and sociology… he would now be well on his way to intellectual oblivion. Instead, his remarkable synthesis still resonates for us in the 21st century.

Now, one must admit that science and technology have provided humanity with substantial benefits in medicine, agriculture, engineering, and many other fields. So it is not an “either or” proposition; it is not that we need humanities instead of technology. The problem is that we have become seriously out of balance; our power over nature is out of all proportion to our humane tendencies and moral sensibilities. Neil Postman of New York University clearly perceived the Janus-faced nature of technology when he said, “Reason, when unaided and untempered by poetic insight and humane feeling, turns ugly and dangerous.”

So, will preserving the music program at your local high school save humanity? Not likely. Nonetheless, if a critical mass of people around the world recognized that our single-minded worship of technology is on course to destroy civilization, we might be able to clear a bit of room for the humanizing and tempering influences of the humanities. I admit that the truth of our situation is unsettling, but as Emerson said, “God offers to every mind a choice between truth and repose. Take which you please—you can never have both.”

9 Comments

  1. Good post. Its time for everyone to wise up, you cant have a technological society without having the ontological grounds first established. “to constitute the world as an empirical world is to constitute it as something independent of ourselves” – Yalom

  2. Thanks Phil, I enjoyed that, and of course I agree. It is sad that modern society exalts technical specialization, while discouraging the polymath. We hear the phrase “jack of all trades, master of none,” when in reality, educational specialization stands for narrow-mindedness an an inability to grasp the big picture.

  3. Thank you Phil. What a wonderful read this… “An Historical Monograph Written in 4930.”

    …”Yet so infatuated with their imaginary “liberty” were these singular people that the contemplation of all this crime abated nothing of the volume and persistence of their patriotic ululations, and affected not their faith in the perfection of their system. They were like a man standing on a rock already submerged by the rising tide, and calling to his neighbors on adjacent cliffs to observe his superior security.”…

    The truth of our situation is indeed unsettling.

  4. Advocacy on behalf of the humanities will not be sufficient to change anything. The reason why humanities are de-emphasized is because individuals who are well-educated in these areas are not useful to the system. A true polymath will not last long in most careers because the jobs do not utilize his full capabilities. There are only so many available positions for scholars, writers, and other independent thinkers. What the system needs is faithful mindless drones and a knowledge of the humanities is actively detrimental to drone achievement.

  5. Great post, Phil. Sorry I have been so late in getting to it!

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