The Importance of Being Human(ities)

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Restroom sign at the University of Washington’s Intellectual House. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2015

All of our current ‘wicked problems’ such as racism, homelessness, environmental issues, human gene editing, violence against women, mass murders, and terrorism, cannot be addressed constructively by science or technology. As the late Donald Schon wrote:

“In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground overlooking a swamp.  On the high ground, manageable problems lend themselves to solution through the use of research-based theory and technique.  In the swampy lowlands, problems are messy and confusing and incapable of technical solution.  The irony of this situation is that the problems of the high ground tend to be relatively unimportant to individuals or society at large, however great their technical interest may be, while in the swamp lie the problems of greatest human concern.” (Schon, D.A. “Knowing-in-action: The new scholarship requires a new epistemology,” 1995, Change, November/December, 27-34.)

In order to muck through the swampy wicked problem areas, we need–more than ever–the humanities. Before we continue down the path of denigrating the humanities (Rubio wanting more welders/less philosophers) and decimating university programs in the humanities, we need to ask ourselves if this is who we want to be–both individually and collectively. Where would we be without grounding in history, language, literature, comparative religion, philosophy, ethics, archeology, the theory/philosophy of law, and the criticism/theory of art? The excellent short (7 minute/ June 2013) video “The Heart of the Matter” by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences explores this question. “No humanities? No Soul,” George Lucas states. 

William ‘Bro’ Adams, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), gave a speech this past week at the University of Washington’s newly opened (and gorgeous) Native American center, called the Intellectual House. Adams reminded us that both the NEH and its sister organization, the National Endowment for the Arts, are 50 years old this year. In 1965, President Johnson signed the act designating both the NEH and the NEA, and he made them a central part of the Great Society.

Adams was, of course, ‘preaching to the choir’ in that most of the audience consisted of academic-types from the different disciplines traditionally considered the humanities. I didn’t recognize anyone else from the health sciences, and none of the audience members asking questions identified themselves as being from science or technology fields. This was disappointing, although not surprising. After all, even physically the UW’s Intellectual House is surrounded by buildings that house the humanities and is a far trek from health sciences or any of the science and technology buildings. But as Adams emphasized towards the end of his talk, there’s a great need to increase the intersection of the humanities with science/technology/medicine (health sciences more broadly). The humanities bring the important tools of reflection. Reflection on what it means to be human. Reflection of what it means to be a citizen.

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