While we often criticize the humanities for not providing an education that leads directly to employment, one philosopher argues they have an even more important role to play in our societies.
We’ve discussed before that Socrates, one of the greatest things to come out of Athens, hated Athenian democracy. While he had many reasons to do so, one of the primary ones was that the typical Athenian had no idea what they were discussing, and were prone to using emotion over reason when making important political decisions. They lacked both the skills for critical thinking and viewing the world outside their own perspective to be proper democratic citizens.
But, as philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues, we can avoid those problems by placing a high value on an education in the humanities. A high value which today is often difficult to find.
To understand ourselves, our creativity and emotions, we must grapple with our pre-human existence.
Creativity might just be the defining trait that makes us human, says E.O. Wilson, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and acclaimed 'Father of Biodiversity'. But what exactly is the modern Homo sapiens, anyway? Wilson calls us an evolutionary chimera, picking up things from every age without fully transitioning out of any one era. That's why we are a complicated mix of paleolithic emotions, medieval leftovers like banks and religion, and now the latest addition: God-like technology. Those are the influences we know about, but creativity may actually predate our language, writings, and art—Wilson believes it's hundreds of thousands of years older than we assume. How can we discover the deepest roots of what has made us so human? Wilson says the humanities need to up their game and help the sciences unlock our creative origins. E.O. Wilson's new book is The Origins of Creativity.
Through an incredible anecdote, Earl Lewis demonstrates why STEM can't do it alone. Scientists and humanists needs each other, and institutions have a responsibility to continue to fund and nurture the humanities.
Earl Lewis, President of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, believes we have two important terms confused: skills development and education. The first is all the practical abilities that will equip a person for their first job – can you read and write, can you code, do you know the most current techniques of your field? The latter is much harder to quantify and teach: can you think autonomously, and go down a path where the endpoint hasn’t been set out for you? Can you pore through a vast array of information and come up with a new answer, entirely your own?
As a society we place a high value on the practical nature of science and business degrees. But what about the practical nature of the humanities?
No matter where you look in today’s world you see people encouraging students to study the STEM fields and to get out of the humanities. From universities, job fairs, to attempts by a bank to get teens to learn financial literacy. Even Obama and presidential candidates get in on the bashing. As a society we tell ourselves that studying the humanities will lead to a life of poverty and unemployment. Since the 1990s the number of students in the humanities has been on a decline, no doubt a sign of the stigma associated with going into fields seen as less than practical.