In the Name of Humanities


Time for a little meditation on the encroaching habits of the Technological Age. I came across this article in New Republic (read it if you know what’s good for you!) and suddenly, my right-brained soul didn’t feel quite as subordinated. It’s a speech by Leon Wieseltier at the commencement of Brandeis University. For all those college-bound teens, we’re all getting swept up in the STEM trend. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Medicine, the core four building blocks of the successful and wealthy of today and tomorrow. It’s the only way to go if you want to make it in life these days. But in the words of Wieseltier:

Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were needed more?

There are still those of us who cherish the works of human creativity, who reject, as Wieseltier describes, the “cult of data, in which no human activity and no human expression is immune to quantification, in which happiness is a fit subject for economists, [and] in which the ordeals of the human heart are inappropriately translated into mathematical expressions.” Yet of course, no one in this modern age can ever reject science. Where would I be without ibuprofen? How else could I live life Claritin clear? However, Wieseltier distinguishes science with scientism:

Scientism is not the same thing as science. Science is a blessing, but scientism is a curse. Science, I mean what practicing scientists actually do, is acutely and admirably aware of its limits, and humbly admits to the provisional character of its conclusions; but scientism is dogmatic, and peddles  certainties.

Alas, as scientism takes ahold of society with a firm grip, this “defense of the humanities” is sorely needed. I have now heard two fully credible voices proclaim the death of knowledge and the birth of information. The first was Sugata Mitra, who solemnly pondered that, perhaps, “knowing is obsolete.” And now, Wieseltier says:

In the digital universe, knowledge is reduced to the status of information…A great Jewish thinker of the early Middle Ages wondered why God, if He wanted us to know the truth about everything, did not simply tell us the truth about everything. His wise answer was that if we were merely told what we need to know, we would not, strictly speaking, know it.

It’s an interesting thing to think about, and one can’t help but wonder how all this will pan out in the long run. Will the humanities eventually cease to exist? Will culture and art and literature perish at the hands of society’s natural selection? Logically, science and math are the fittest in this new, tech-driven environment, and science itself has theorized that it’s all about survival of the fittest. But I am a lover of the humanities, and if you are human, then you should be, too. And now, we are under attack by robots. It’s actually happening. More or less at least.. More specifically, our human individuality is under attack. Wieseltier urges:

So there is no task more urgent in American intellectual life at this hour than to offer some resistance to the twin imperialisms of science and technology, and to recover the old distinction — once bitterly contested, then generally accepted, now almost completely forgotten – between the study of nature and the study of man.

This is a weird, tricky situation, because we all love our little robots. I’m ironically using one right now to spread this message. I love my phone, my laptop, my Direct TV, my Tumblr..I’m pretty much Albert Einstein’s greatest fear:

I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.

In restaurants, my family and I have to set time limits on cell phone use. We have it bad. But anyway, I’m getting distracted. The point is, society as a whole these days does not prize culture and the humanities as much as it did in, say, Venus de Milo’s time. Instead, Wiesltier says,

Perhaps culture is now the counterculture.

I’ll never leave science or my robot friends now, but like all magic, all this technology must be used for good. And by good I mean the preservation of human, not mechanic, activity.


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