Credit: Quinn Dombrowski, Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Scientists should defend, not defund, the humanities

In January 2012, I wrote a column that made a little joke about humanities Ph.D. students learning important skills such as how to put sheets on their mothers’ basement couches. It was meant to be a harmless jab, in the same paragraph as a similar affront against business majors, all within the context of an entire article basically insulting scientists.

I tend to regard this kind of banter as good-natured ribbing, like the T-shirts we had at Princeton that said “YALE SUCKS.” We knew that Yale didn’t really suck. It’s freaking Yale. But friendly taunts are a good way to bond, which may be why so many summer camps force kids to participate in some kind of Olympics. (“Go, red team! Beat the blue team! We’ll show bunks 1, 4, 5, 7, and 10 that bunks 2, 3, 6, 8, and 9 are clearly superior!”)

But when the humanities face a real threat, a threat disguised as practicality that artificially elevates us above our poetry-loving colleagues, every scientist should be offended.

Yet this particular low-grade comment about humanities students struck a chord for someone who responded with nasty emails accusing me of fueling anti-intellectualism. He was appalled that I would write such a joke, that Science Careers would publish it, and that anyone would dare to find it funny.

I guess he must have woken up on the wrong side of the couch that morning.

It’s an uneasy peace, at times, between science students and humanities students. The running gag is that we’ll end up with well-paying and practical careers, while our contemporaries studying 18th-century Flemish epistemology will emerge from academia baffled at the dearth of jobs for 18th-century Flemish epistemologists.

And most of the time, we get along just fine. My wife, sister, and father have advanced degrees in the humanities; my mother and I have advanced degrees in the sciences. I guess what I’m saying is, my family is a bunch of nerds.

We’re two sides of the same coin, and when scientists jest that their classmates taking certain  courses (“Sociology 436: Special Topics in Muppet Babies”) are wasting their time, we mean no harm—after all, with some exceptions, we say “Ugh, philosophy” the same way they say “Ugh, astronomy.” Also, we’re jealous.

But when the humanities face a real threat, a threat disguised as practicality that artificially elevates us above our poetry-loving colleagues, every scientist should be offended. This summer, Japan’s education minister, Hakubun Shimomura, sent a letter asking all of the country’s national universities to eliminate or scale back their humanities and social science programs in favor of departments that “serve areas that better meet society’s needs.”

The request is nothing new: It seems there’s always someone crying out against film students or East Asian studies majors, wondering why these damn kids don’t just study petroleum chemistry. The State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany, in 2010, presumably having blown its entire budget on snowshoes, famously announced it would eliminate its pesky French, Italian, Russian, classics, and theater departments—though it did semi-resurrect French, Russian, and theater the following year as minors rather than majors. (Italian and classics remained on the chopping block, guaranteeing that no incoming student would read Dante’s “Inferno,” lest they abandon hope, all who enter there.)

But the order given in Japan was heeded on a large scale, and according to the Times Higher Education, 26 Japanese schools complied with Shimomura’s request and began purging their campuses of “unnecessary” liberal arts and social science courses. It was a massacre vicious enough to make a person cry, “Oh, the humanities!”

I’m afraid some people will construe this as a victory for science. Finally, the expository essay writers shall be eradicated from the earth, and our grade point averages will soar! No longer will we suffer the indignity of constructing curricula for introductory courses with names like “Physics without Arithmetic” or “A General Survey of All of Science”! At last, our campus coffee shops shall be used solely for their divine purpose: the selling of coffee!

Actually, this is terrible news for science. Yes, I want to live in a world that prizes proficiency in science, but I don’t want to live in a world of just scientists. Can you imagine the dinner parties? The novels? The music festivals?

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” sonnets would begin. “No, I shall not, for I must go argue with a collaborator about first authorship. Please compare thyself to a summer’s day, recalling that if p > 0.05, thou art not significantly comparable to a summer’s day, and submit your analysis to one of my graduate students for grading.”

Throughout history, much figurative poo has been flung at scientists. We’ve had our motives questioned, our work jeered at, and our conclusions dismissed. One might imagine, then, that we’d feel gratified watching the poo fly in the other direction; it’s a tacit acknowledgement that our work is both practical and profitable.

But a crisis for medievalists is not a triumph for mathematicians; it’s a crisis for all. Even scientists who would rather do a 10-year postdoc than sit through a comparative literature lecture suffer when the humanities disappear. After all, there’s a word for an education that includes disparate topics for which one may not have aptitude, and I used that word earlier in this sentence. It’s “education.”

The distribution requirement in college that I dreaded the most was economics. The class in college that I ended up enjoying the most, and learning from the most, was economics. Who knew? Taking a class in your least favorite subject is like exercising in the morning. Some people are naturally motivated to do it, but for those who aren’t, a little forced extension beyond your comfort zone can be healthy.

Shimomura’s edict is a symptom of a larger problem in higher education, the problem of administrators attempting to dictate curricula. Budgetary constraints are real, but it’s overreaching to rationalize why some departments are, as the English majors say, more equal than others.

And sometimes administrators aren’t just misallocating resources; they’re actually part of the drain. “I make some tough choices,” university presidents seem to say, “but that’s why I take home the big bucks. Now, why doesn’t my school have any bucks?”

We should object to the downsizing of the humanities as strongly as we’d act to save our own departments. When they came for the historians, I said nothing, because I was not a historian. When they came for the music theorists, I said nothing, because I was not a music theorist. When they came for the visual artists, I said nothing, because I was not a visual artist. But when they came for the scientists, there was no one left to speak for me, because engineers are functionally illiterate.

Needless to say, Shimomura didn’t issue his decree in a vacuum. Many Japanese universities, just like SUNY Albany, are facing financial crises and need to trim unnecessary or unpopular departments. That makes sense, but do we have to cut the humanities simply because their employment prospects are sparser and average salaries are lower than ours? Do we have to cut the programs that enrich everyone’s college experience? Do we have to cut the subjects that, just like science, promote critical thinking, analysis, and creativity?

Can’t we cut sports?

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