Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Yes! The Humanities Are In Decline And It Exposes A Moral Vacuum In Our Cuture

In her recent WSJ op-ed ('The Humanities' Decline Makes Us Morally Obtuse') English Professor Paula  Marantz Cohen writes:

"Few people seem to be able to reconcile two overlapping truths - that someone can have a valid grievance in one context and be guilty of some version of the same thing in another. I see this as a failure of education. By 'education' I do not mean the workshops that teach us what not to say or to avoid offending others. That is training, not education."

Which is absolutely true. As an example, one can consider the case of  Asia Argento, Italian actress and one of Harvey Weinstein's original accusers. But who- in a radically divergent context - paid out $380,000 late last year to Jimmy Bennett who had accused her of assault. (See e.g. TIME, Oct. 1, p. 31).    As the piece goes on to note:

"The news came after Argento delivered  a rousing speech at the Cannes Film Festival in support of #MeToo and change in the industry."

But incredibly, after the Bennett revelations many mistakenly then took Ms. Argento to be a villainess, which is typical of the less (humanities) educated individuals Prof. Cohen writes about. These include those deficient in humanities exposure - which can range from classic literature to ethics, to metaphysics and philosophy-  as well as people who innately hate the humanities as inferior to science and technology.  As Prof. Cohen puts it:

"The humanities teach understanding but they also teach humility, that we may be wrong and our enemies may be right, that the past can be criticized without our necessarily feeling superior to it. That people's professed motives are not the whole story, and that the division of the world into oppressors and victims is a simplistic fairy tale."

For my own part, I think of how much more restricted my writing would be without the exposure to the humanities I had at Loyola University, for example. Those years and courses -  in everything from English lit, to metaphysics and ethics as well as comparative religion -  set the stage for my much larger framework of experience and education. This was beyond the standard STEM subjects one takes in the course of specialization for one's chosen major.  Were I to have been solely restricted to the STEM subjects, I'd never be writing about ethics, economics, religion, history now.  This blog Brane Space would be vastly limited to just math and science topics.

It strikes at the core of what Prof. Cohen is getting at that too many scientists even today confine themselves strictly to their specialty areas and seldom - if ever -  venture outside them.  So terrified  are they of being criticized for stepping out of their assigned academic cubby holes. It kind of reminds me of the Albert Bartlett Physics Today essay from 2004 in which he expressed the fear any physicists have of writing about the population explosion our planet faces.

The core problem as described by Prof. Cohen seems to be (ibid.):

"Science, engineering and finance may be hard but literature, history and philosophy are complex - impossible to resolve with a yes - or no, right or wrong answer. This is precisely what constitutes their importance as a tool for living. Metaphysics takes its name from the idea it goes beyond 'hard' science into the realm of moral and intellectual speculation, where no empirical proof is feasible."

This is a spot-on observation and also one that explains why most physicists, for example, would never write a book such as 'Beyond Atheism, Beyond God' - which I wrote five years ago.  Why not? Because in that book my Loyola Liberal Arts- Metaphysics- Ethics persona emerged, in particular in those chapters dealing with quantum  mechanical conjectures, consciousness and how these affect human ethics and even religious propensities. (Explaining also why most physicists - though admitted atheists or agnostics - would never write any atheist or agnostic texts, as I did.)

In like manner, most physicists would not write a book such as 'The JFK Assassination - The Final Analysis'.  Why not?   Likely because most physicists either are not that invested in recent history, or not confident enough to write a 650-plus page book on one defining historical  event (like the JFK assassination) or more inclined not to veer out of their 'yes-no' cubby holes for specific research.    Informed history thus drove my writing of the book, but also the application of Newtonian physics in multiple areas - such as the kill shot, not to mention echo correlation analysis for the acoustic impulses.   In other words, I had no problem applying scientific principles where I found them to be warranted.

What we are talking about then is a process whereby one transcends the realm of binary-leaning physical reductionism to more complex analysis based on effective critical thinking.   As I've noted in previous posts, this is precisely the benefit of a strong liberal arts education, leading to the ability to evaluate the validity of information - social, historical, religious or ethical - and the credibility of the sources underlying these.  Thereby, one is enabled to not only distinguish false physics (e.g. perpetual motion machines) from the genuine form, but false,  revisionist history from the more genuine entity, and fake news from real news.

This is why Prof. Cohen's ending words are so important:

"If we want our nation to heal and thrive, we just put the study of literature, history and philosophy back at the center of our curricula and require that students study complex works - not just difficult ones."

To the last point, that means being able to read and understand Sartre's 'Being And Nothingness' -  and not just Sir Arthur Eddington's 'Space,  Time and Gravitation',  or Paul Dirac's 'Principles of Quantum Mechanics'.  The truly well-educated person should be able to do both!

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