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The Heft of the Humanities

by Deborah Bosley

July 7,2008

We live in a culture that worships technology and is awed by science. Both have transformed the way we live, how we think about our bodies, how we move through time and space, how we communicate, and both have produced innovations that have made this country highly ranked in the world. Because of this power, we have become a culture dominated by, and under the dominance of, science and technology.

No one would quarrel with the importance of the technological professions: we need bridges, cell phones, computer applications, stop lights, roads, medicine and medical equipment – we need most of the products created by scientists and engineers. It can be a dangerous thing to focus less attention, both in universities and among the public, on the humanities. The baseline of our cultural and democratic triangle is the humanities, for they teach us what it means to be human.

First, the humanities teach us how to stake our ground, how to argue our point of view, and how to verbally and aesthetically defend our democratic way of life. We need to be reminded that we want a country in which people think and quarrel about the universal human questions of good and evil, imagination and change, compassion and hope, rights and responsibilities. Scientists need humanists to help give them direction to think about all these issues.

Second, science and technology need the humanities to foster ethical discussions about the consequences of scientific advancement and technological innovation. Science knows a lot about the body, but little of the soul. Technology gives us tools, but does not teach us how to use them to understand good from evil. We believe both will save us from our enemies and give us better, healthier lives. But the humanities may, in fact, be the best weapon we have to protect our culture. The humanities, the “science of the good life,” force us to challenge the status quo, fire our imaginations, make us ponder good and evil, and then make hard, personal choices.

Third, the humanities, science, and technology inevitably should stream into one another. As Alan Lightman, professor of physics at MIT and novelist (Einstein’s Dream) states: “You cannot understand the sciences without first understanding the humanities.” We have created a false dichotomy as if an ability in one area precludes the importance of the other. Whereas both need to know much more about the other.

Creativity and innovation, two words frequently associated with technology, are, after all, at the heart of the humanities. In April, Ira Flatow, of NPR’s Science Friday, gave a talk at UNC Charlotte in which he showed how many innovations and inventions came from musicians, actors, and others whom you would not expect. For instance, Hedy Lamar, an actress in the ‘40s, was an engineer. She and a musician invented a device that allowed submarines to communicate in code on the same frequencies; this device became the precursor to what allows cell phones to communicate with one another.

Finally, the humanities teach a facility with language. On a practical level, corporations, governments, and non-profits are all concerned about the lack of communication skills among college graduates. Several national studies rank the abilities to write and speak among the top hiring characteristics they look for in recent graduates. Language is the stuff of literature, history, and philosophy. Few scientists and technologists can claim that communication is their strong suit. A recent article in Newsweek indicated that 50% of those applicants accepted into medical school are majors in the humanities and, in particular, English majors because of their ability to communicate clearly, not always a strong suit in physicians.

In spring 2008, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at UNC Charlotte launched its new Center for Humanities, Technology, and Science (HTAS). One of HTAS’ goals is to help scientists and technologists learn to speak and write about their research so that the general public can understand what they are doing and thinking. If our citizenry is going to participate in the debates of global warming, energy alternatives, internet voting, stem cells, etc., then scientific knowledge must be made clear to the non-scientific public. That’s communication. That’s democracy. That’s nothing to be overlooked.

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