Friday, October 2, 2009

The Value of the Humanities

Reading a recent article called "The Burden of the Humanities" by Wilfred McClay reaffirmed why in an age that is increasingly characterized by the forms of technology we use to improve our lives, the humanities still hold an important place for us. As we awake to the alarm on our cell phones and begin texting immediately, perform our morning workout while listening to our iPods, and jump on our laptops to respond to the emails that came in overnight, we may rarely stop to think how we as human beings are changing in response to our technology. In addition, as the sciences play more and more of a role in our lives, whether it's by altering the food we eat or the manner in which we transport ourselves to and fro, we may give short shrift to the daily ethical dilemmas we confront that result from the opportunities that technology provides us.

We may engage in debates about cloning or stem cell research, but all too often, these discussions can be grounded in the immediately emotional or the visceral reactions that impassioned opinions without a strong foundation engender. We can know many facts or we can be privy to the technicalities of the particular issue, but do we actually grapple with the human, and humane, side of these issues? We may have a great deal of information and even knowledge, but we may find ourselves without the wisdom that comes from the study of the way that other societies have grappled with similar issues or the manner we have dealt with similar, but not necessarily the same, dilemmas in the past.

We must know the science to inform ourselves on the topic. but we must also avail ourselves of the thinking from previous times. As McClay says about the humanities, "the knowledge they (the humanities) convey is not a rough, preliminary substitute for what psychology, chemistry, molecular biology, and physics will eventually resolve with greater finality. They are an accurate reflection of the subject they treat, the most accurate possible."

Integrating a study of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex or Mary Shelly's Frankenstein into a discussion of genetic modification may allow us to wrestle with the role of science in our lives with a more informed sense of fate or the terrors of science run amok. Similarly, it is helpful to place our current caustic debates over health care in the context of history. South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson's shouting "you lie" to President Obama may have been offensive but one could argue that it pales in comparison to1856 when his South Carolinian predecessor Preston Brooks used his cane to beat Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner senseless on the floor of the Senate during a debate over slavery.

I recently said in a speech that we want our students to see the music of math and the art of science. A fully formed human being has the knowledge of the sciences combined with the wisdom of the humanities.
To quote McClay again, "The humanities, rightly pursued and rightly ordered, can do things, and teach things, and preserve things, and illuminate things, which can be accomplished in no other way. It is the humanities that instruct us in the range and depth of human possibility, including our immense capacity for both goodness and depravity. It is the humanities that nourish and sustain our shared memories, and connect us with our civilization's past and with those who have come before us. It is the humanities that teach us how to ask what the good life is for us humans, and guide us in the search for civic ideals and institutions that will make the good life possible."

All good schools, including Crossroads College Prep, attempt to provide students with an education that balances the sciences and the humanities, and shows students how they are in fact interconnected. In this way, students can feel well-equipped to grapple with the conflicts facing them and their world and make decisions based not only on what is effective but also what is right.