What’s the use?
My boyfriend is in computer science, and his greatest fears are his English and Humanities classes. Since I am in Liberal Arts, we often argue about the purpose of what he learns in those courses. He finds them irrelevant and always tries to find a SparkNotes summary of his readings. He would rather spend his time gaining technical knowledge and skills that, in his view, are much more valuable for everyday life.
We are polar opposites when it comes to our academic interests and aims. As a student in the humanities, I am gaining how-to knowledge and skills as well, and I want to be able to apply them towards personal, social and even global issues, or to support projects that address those issues. But I will admit that the techniques I am learning seem “softer” than the ones he is, and that exactly how to employ them for the greater good is still somewhat vague in my head. My boyfriend often demonstrates to me how the techniques he acquires will obviously help discover or build new things that could be useful to society, and I can’t help but agree with him that they will.
Recently, I went to see a conference lecture by professor Robert Stephens on “AI and the ‘Two Cultures.” There I learned that the term “Two Cultures” refers to the sciences and the humanities branches of learning. This concept comes from a 1959 lecture by British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow in which he posited that the intellectual class of society is split into these two cultures and that neither one values nor tries to learn from the other at all. This lecture made me think not only about my boyfriend and me, but also about my relationship to my program.
Being in Liberal Arts, I am a humanities student, and as a humanities student, I often hear from family members, friends in other programs and even sometimes teachers that my academic orientation is “interesting but useless,” and that I’ll struggle to find a proper job. On the other hand, science students rarely seem to have to worry about these comments because most people tend to think that the techniques they are acquiring will be celebrated and compensated by society. This apparent preferential treatment makes me reflect on why we teach subjects like history, philosophy, and the humanities. If they do not serve some kind of purpose to humanity, why should current and future generations study them? Now, I believe deeply that the knowledge and skills I acquire in Liberal Arts are beneficial to society. But how?
Will the techniques I am learning in critical thinking, in forming cogent, well-constructed oral and written arguments, give me the expertise that will lead to “[…] breathtaking breakthroughs, while also transforming the way we work and interact with others […],” as written in the description for this year’s S.P.A.C.E. theme, TECHNIQUE? Will my humanities-related techniques contribute to the world?
The World Economic Forum seems to think they will. As the political, economic and environmental landscape shifts more rapidly than in any previous generation, the WEF upgraded “creativity” from #10 to #3 on their top ten list of skills that will be essential over the next fifty years. I guess techniques that simply maintain and expand the status quo––that keep us doing what we’ve been doing since the Industrial Revolution––aren’t the only ones that will be needed as we search for ways to adapt as individuals, society and a species in a changing world. Creative and critical thinking may be more important than ever.
I myself could come up with thousands of theories related to why my scholarly path is important, most of them related to how humanities are considered to be closer to ethics and morality than science. My program constantly exposes me to various philosophical, sociological and historical ideas that compel me to see the world from different perspectives and take as much as possible into consideration. This is a competence in which I pride myself and that I believe should be central in everybody’s education in the world of today where we are much more focused on the outcome or product of a process, either in a scientific, political or economical project, rather than in the techniques and approaches involved and their potential impact.
Focusing on the ends alone might ignore some of the destructive means involved in achieving those ends, means such as exploitation of people and the planet. The humanities highlight the humanity and empathy in each of us; it develops our emotional intelligence and our capacity to cooperate with others. These qualities can greatly influence our judgement when it comes to making decisions later in both our personal lives and careers because we can better consider the influence of our actions on civilization before moving forward with any task.
I believe it is at least in part because of the lack of importance given to humanities studies and their scholars that the truly breathtaking technological and scientific advancements have not prevented us from arriving where we are now: a world raging with wars, injustice, climate change and yet also general disinterest in the issues that do not affect us personally.