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The humanities: fundamental knowledge for the real world

February 06, 2011

EDITOR'S NOTE: This op-ed article appeared as a "My Turn" column in the Saturday, Feb. 5 edition of the Arizona Republic. To read the original piece click here.

By Elizabeth D. Capaldi

Each news cycle brings appalling accounts of violence around the world, as well as chronicles of poverty, injustice, inequity and the entire host of intractable problems that beset humanity. We hear about global climate change, air and water pollution, overpopulation, exhaustion of natural resources and destruction of ecosystems. The magnitude of the challenges that confront us suggests there may be a limit to what we as a species can do to improve the human condition.

Given the importance of scientific discovery and technological innovation in the global knowledge economy, it is imperative for institutions to advance education in the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. But the potential for graduates in these fields to contribute to the competitiveness of our nation will not depend exclusively on scientific or quantitative literacy.

Half a century ago, C.P. Snow questioned the relationship between the natural sciences and the humanities in his famous, and infamous, essay “The Two Cultures.” Snow worried about the divide between the humanities and the natural sciences – a divide which in many ways has grown ever since. But his mistake was only to worry about one side of that divide – his sense that humanists were insufficiently in touch with scientists. In doing so, he reduced fundamental social and human questions to technical ones and failed to engage with the crucial choices that human beings, and human societies, must face in meeting the challenges of the contemporary world.

In truly confronting the world, the humanities and social sciences are not incidental but crucial. For the challenges we face are not simply technical ones but more broadly human ones. How do we choose between different values? How do we understand people with different beliefs or cultures? How can we debate each other without resorting to violence or deceit? How, in other words, do we subject ideas, values, choices to rational criticism without succumbing to hatred or contempt?

These questions – so central to humanistic study today – are enduring not because of some timeless answers from the past but because they remain unresolved, perhaps unresolvable in any final state. It is the process of questioning and criticizing and discussing and debating that makes the humanities – where students develop their capacity for creativity, innovation, critical thinking, analytical reasoning and leadership – more essential than ever. For the humanities challenge students to confront their own experiences, beliefs and thoughts, against thoughts from the past and from elsewhere. A broadening of their experience results from this knowledge. But perhaps more importantly a deepening of their capacity to understand themselves and each other results. From this deepened capacity will come new imaginative approaches to not only today’s pressing concerns but those we cannot even conceive.

Colleges and universities must educate students to be successful, yet we cannot anticipate the disruption and flux certain to persist across all sectors of employment. The ideas and technologies that create new industries today may well be superseded tomorrow. Continued success over the course of a lifetime that is likely to span multiple career trajectories demands qualities of character in individuals that transcend specialized professional training. And the better we understand ourselves and others, the more likely we are to navigate change successfully.

The humanities offer us our best shot at that self-knowledge the ancients talked about. They also serve as a reality check on the complexity and uncertainty of our time. And even in this era of rapidly accelerating change, some things do endure. All of which is why we study the humanities.

Elizabeth D. Capaldi is the executive vice president and provost of Arizona State University.