In the U.S. as in other countries around the globe the push is on to improve students’ skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.
Innovation is the name of the game. Computer technology is already transforming how we work, live and play and researchers are delving deeper and deeper into our bodies and surroundings. The knowledge economy is where we believe the well-paying jobs of tomorrow will be.
This emphasis on the hard sciences – biology, chemistry, math, physics – brought about a $260 million nationwide STEM effort to move U.S. students to the top internationally. President Obama unveiled the Educate to Innovate Campaign about a year ago. But the emphasis on the hard sciences has also given rise to efforts that threaten to diminish the humanities, sometimes referred to as the soft sciences: Squeezed by budget cuts, the State University of New York at Albany on Oct. 1 announced cost cuts that would eliminate all degree programs in French, Italian, the classics, Russian and theater. (Responses to this SUNY decision here and here.)
But it gets worse, Dr. Raymond Tallis, a British philosopher and poet, told a crowd of more than 100 Tuesday at the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park.
Tallis is a retired neurologist who travels with a laptop and has neither a problem with Charles Darwin’s theory on evolution nor with modern medical research. What he has a problem with are efforts to, for example, explain moral judgments with the help of brain scans or to replace the human conscience in psychology, religion and the arts with the evolutionary drive to survive and procreate.
Proponents of these efforts are considered an extreme fringe in the humanities, but their popularity is increasing, Tallis said. “They are part of a much wider intellectual trend – namely the remorseless rise of the idea that humans can be understood in biological terms. That men and women are essentially beasts, or if that sounds too judgmental, that they are organisms.”
Tallis particularly railed against using biology to explain what makes great works of literature special.
In one example, he shredded the argument of his friend, Philip Davis, an English professor at the University of Liverpool, that Shakespeare’s use of nouns as verbs heightens brain activity, which may be one of the reasons why Shakespeare’s plays have such dramatic effect. To prove his argument, Davis even collaborated with neuroscientists to study brain electricity, Tallis said
“This is literature as brain teasing,” he sneered and called the study results banal.
The battle between the sciences and the humanities has been in the making for about 400 years and was set in motion by Copernicus, the father of modern astronomy, Francis Bacon, the father of the scientific methodology, and Descartes, the father of analytic geometry.
The sciences and the humanities are really two parts of a whole.
The sciences provide detailed knowledge about how things work. They are empirical, which means scientific knowledge can be verified by replicating the experiment. Scientific knowledge can be turned into a product, such as a medicine, a microchip or a clean energy technology, that has a monetary value and creates jobs.
The humanities, such as philosophy, history, the arts, literature, languages, the law and rhetoric, provide big-picture wisdom. They are analytical, critical and speculative, which means they study the human condition and come up with clues that are based on judgment calls and interpretation. This wisdom undergirds ideas such as fairness, democracy and free will, but its monetary value is hard to determine.
Is it coincidence that popular demand favors the sciences at the same time as computer technology is sweeping the world and globalization is boosting countries such as China, India and Brazil? Tallis didn’t have an answer to this question. He said he’s just an outside observer.