Mere Humanities

Categories, while necessary, can be troubling things.  One place to see this clearly is in academia, which is itself a category.  In the long history of deciding what counts as a legitimate job (you can make a living now being a YouTuber!) somewhere in the Middle Ages, based on the idea of the monastery, the university arose.  This required some justification—people are to be paid for researching topics and teaching others to do the same?  Not quite back-breaking labor, but it can lead to lumbago nevertheless.  Topics had to be worthy to permit this excused absence.  Law and theology were the earliest majors available.  Hobbes’ two swords.  Church and state.  This makes sense since monasteries were all about obeying rules and obeying God.  Theology was the queen of the sciences.

Perhaps unbelievable in today’s world, it was thought that other topics than theology—called humanities so as to distinguish them from divine discussions—should be added to the curriculum.  These were topics that the educated were expected to have mastered, and they included things like history and, yes, mathematics.  In the early days the building blocks of science (such as math) were considered humanities.  Theology wasn’t.  The Reformation complicated things because now there were lots of theologies.  And this thing called the Enlightenment was suggesting that they were all just a bit naive.  Still, universities grew up around theological training grounds, including places like Harvard, Princeton, and Yale.  Slowly, however, theology began losing relevance and became more and more a humanities subject.  Call it a strange form of incarnation.

By the time I became aware of theological study, it was firmly, and deeply a humanities subject.  Often called “religious studies,” other academics often considered it a throw-away major, but if you dug deep enough you found yourself learning dead languages that even a scientist couldn’t comprehend.  When I began attending a Christian liberal arts college, it was clear the engineers and others of what would come to be called STEM topics were given preferences.  Science, Technology, Engineering, and yes, Math.  Some of the subjects that had started out as mere humanities, now received the praise (and cash) while theology—religious studies—had become a purely dispensable humanities topic.  These days humanities majors are dropping like theologians, and going to university means preparing for either business or science-based careers.  Subjects in which you make more mere money.  And one of the founding subjects of this entire enterprise will earn you a starting salary position at Walmart.  And that’s a category worth avoiding at any cost.

Photo credit: Ben Schumin, Wikimedia Commons

You’re History

A story from Inside Higher Ed discusses a study of history majors and their rapid decline.  This occurs during a sudden onset of “job related” majors and the graph accompanying the article shows how STEM has taken over higher education.  These are the fields with actual occupations awaiting them at the end of the degree, while disciplines such as history and religion (also very near the bottom) have less clear career paths.  Indeed, when I’ve been in the job market I find that a religion degree is less than useless, no matter what the department recruiters tell you.  If you’re not bound for the clergy you undertake the study at your own peril.  History, I expect, suffers from a similar dynamic, but the peril in this case is to all of civilization.

We’ve seen over the past two years how a stunning lack of knowledge of history sets a nation on the path to chaos.  Businessmen with no classical education don’t make good national leaders.  Knowing where we’ve been, as Santayana so eloquently stated, is the only thing that keeps us from repeating past failures.  History is our only safeguard in this respect.  Over the Thanksgiving break I spent a little time delving into family history.  Since I don’t come from illustrious lineage, I felt the frustration of finding out what happened to obscure people from the last couple of centuries.  Lack of history on a personal level.  On a professional level, my doctorate is really in the history of religions (ancient religions) and I’ve become keenly aware of just how little history there is to the very popular modern Fundamentalist movement.

Maybe I said that wrong.  They do have a history, but the belief system that is touted as ancient is really quite modern.  Anti-modern, in fact.  When historical knowledge is lacking, however, people can make all kinds of claims based on nothing more than wishful thinking.  History keeps us honest.  Or it used to.  When we’ve outlived the need for history we’ve started down a path unlit by any embers of past human foibles.  We’ve been living in a culture in love with technology but not so much with critical reflection of where such innovations might take us.  Doctors are beginning to complain that they spend more time on their computers than with their patients.  The time freed up by the internet has been taken up by the internet.  And when all of this comes to its natural culmination, we would be well served by historians to make a record of what went wrong.  If we could find any.

 

Head of STEAM

The market producing doctorates in the humanities is showing no signs of slowing down. The fact is we’re all human, and many of us aren’t very technically inclined, unless we have to be. There are fewer and fewer jobs for these bright students who graduate with doctorates in the humanities, but the plight of the “privileged” is no concern to wider society. Let the eggheads figure it out. At the same time, wisdom in the job market is that careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM subjects) are growing and showing the most promise for future careers. The pace of technological change is so rapid that yes, obsolescence for new devices is six months or less. My iPhone 4 is a dinosaur, although when I first held it some three years ago it was so advanced that I was afraid of it. A moment’s reflection will reveal that the most advanced technology is already in use in the military since staying ahead of the enemy is always the bottom line.

This situation has led to some concern, and not just among those of us in the humanities. Some in the world of STEM are saying that quality of life suffers. To indulge a stereotype, try to imagine geeks without Star Trek. We know that Star Trek was as much fantasy as science fiction. My iPhone makes a communicator look just plain silly. Star Trek is, however, creative indulgence. While many would hesitate to raise it to the status of “art” it is part of the Arts: fine arts, literature, film, music, and some television. The stories it tells are the stories of human beings (and one alien) struggling against often more advanced civilizations. In the end, humanity always wins. If we exit the stereotype, scientists are often musicians and writers as well. Some become novelists or consultants on box-office busters. We are more than meat machines.

Recently voices have been heard suggesting that STEM should be STEAM. The Arts have an integral role to play in the scientific and technological fields. Even some numbers are imaginary. The basis for developing imagination is the Arts. Although we could have made it to this point in our development without Star Trek, the fact is that many of us growing up with it, as well as the more silly, but also influential Lost in Space, and what we now know is a most assured cash cow, Star Wars, know that these shows helped shaped the present we inhabit. Arts give us visions. There continue to be those who castigate the Arts as “soft” and “weak” and tangential to the cold hard facts. But they are wrong. Humans can’t survive without a source of warmth and energy. And the first great engines of advancing civilization still have much to teach us, for those engines ran on steam.

Explained Away

The premise seems sound. Although science tends to indicate that God is not necessary to explain anything, religion itself may still be useful. In a nutshell, that’s the basis of Alain de Button’s TED talk, “Atheism 2.0.” We don’t need to believe in God to find religion a useful paradigm. There’s so much more to being human than being simply analytical. De Button begins from the premise that there is no god, but that religion teaches us many useful lessons. It is a fascinating concept. I’ve had de Button’s book on the topic on my reading list for some months now, but like so many pressed for time, I find it simpler to watch a 20-minute TED talk than to read an entire book. It is refreshing to see someone on TED not simply dismissing religion. My friends in the STEM community often recommend TED talks, and they usually leave me feeling small and insignificant. Now I can at least show my face.

A deep irony pervades this condescension to religion. Scientific study of the past (known by the collective term archaeology) has recently given strong indication that the religious impulse is what led to civilization itself. The mysterious site of Gobekli Tepe, as I’ve mentioned before, seems to reveal that even before high antiquity what drew people together was the emergence of religious belief. Religion leads to culture, and culture leads to science. Science rejects religion and what happens to culture? Just take a look around. I’m still a naive man with working class values. In the course of my business travels I’ve often ended up in what might be considered the sketchiest kinds of neighborhoods. The suburbs keep moving further out. What happens when we run out of space? God only kn— wait, that’s a forbidden premise. Materialism only knows.

De Button’s talk is fascinating in that he doesn’t simply dismiss religion. Like most non-specialists, he focuses on the accidentals that reveal something savvy religionists have always known—there’s a healthy dose of psychology in any religion. Call it neuroscience, or call it truth. Religions have something to teach us. Civilization, it seems, began because of religion. De Button is clearly correct that we need not believe the minutia of religious doctrine to get something out of it. Atheism is not always evil nor is piety always above moral suspicion. Being human, we can’t help but wonder what is really real, however. Religions claim to know, as do some sciences. Little can be said beyond the fact that none of us know. Of course, TED will ask some of us to speak to the issue and the rest of us should just sit still and pay attention. To be noticed is to be an expert.

The eternal struggle (photo credit JuanMa, Wikipedia)

The eternal struggle (photo credit JuanMa, Wikipedia)