STEM sells; humanities invests

 
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by Richard Nilsen
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As I write this, I am listening to Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. It is not only profoundly beautiful, it is deeply moving. It speaks both of death and loss, of pain both physical and emotional and yet is also overwhelmingly comforting. It would be hard to find another work of art that says so much about what it means to be human.
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It makes me remember Paul Gauguin’s painting, D’où Venons Nous? Que Sommes Nous? Où Allons Nous? (“Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”) at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
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The painting’s title asks essential questions, questions central to our occupation of our skins. In some form, these are questions we all come to ask of ourselves, and whether we answer in some philosophical terms, or simply by living the life we do, we cannot avoid them: In a sense, trying to avoid them is answering them.
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I mention that because the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point has proposed eliminating majors in humanities. In this, they have joined several other colleges and universities, including Indiana State University, Edinboro University, the University of Southern Maine, Boise State University, Rider University, Western Illinois University, even the University of North Carolina. Some have already axed majors, some are floating the proposals under the guise of making universities function more like business.
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Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker offered his rational, proposing to change the state education code from requiring the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” and now requiring them to “meet the state’s workforce needs.”
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How could we have gone so far astray?
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A certain class of politician has coopted the conversation. For them, all questions are economic questions. This seems odd, because, of course, in the past, the Republicans were so big on “values.” Now, however, the only value they seem to comprehend is financial value. All their policy decisions seem based on the acquisition of money — and the belief that this view is universally held, and English majors are just losers in the big zero-sum game.
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In an odd way, the irony of which they would not understand, they have become Marxists. It almost makes me laugh, or at least grin sheepishly. While in the past, these same politicians waxed elegant about values — god, country and family — all they seem to be able to address now is taxes, jobs, and keeping immigrants from taking our jobs.
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But where did those values come from, in the first place?
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A job, per se, does not make life worth living. It may make it possible, or at least easier, but it cannot make it worth the while. It takes an inner life to do that. One has to think and feel, absorb the world and understand the thoughts and feelings of others. This is exactly what the humanities are all about.
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Novelist Francine Prose (who is my age) noted in The Guardian, “Studying the classics and philosophy teaches students where we come from, and how our modes of reasoning have evolved over time. Learning foreign languages, and about other cultures, enables students to understand how other societies resemble or differ from our own.”
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She also questions the motives of those politicians, both national and local, who wish to suppress the humanities in favor of vocational training for a work force.
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“Is it entirely paranoid to wonder if these subjects are under attack because they enable students to think in ways that are more complex than the reductive simplifications so congenial to our current political and corporate discourse?”
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This is not a plea to axe STEM majors and block replace them with courses on moral philosophy, Milton’s prosody and the history of the Ottoman Empire, but rather to realize that they must all be integrated into a single tree of knowledge. Science and literature are both not only important, but vital.
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Those of you who knew the late Dimitri Drobatschewsky may remember that when he was a child in a musical family in Berlin between the wars, Albert Einstein would come over to his house to sit in playing string quartets with Dimitri’s father, mother and brother.
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Dimitri would sometimes quote Friedrich Nietszche, who said, “Life without music would be a mistake.”
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Or physicist Richard Feynman, who played the bongo drums and loved samba.
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Or, when Robert Oppenheimer reacted to the first nuclear blast in the New Mexico desert, he responded with a quote from the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita: “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” It was poetry that expressed his emotions.
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When Gauguin talked about his magnum opus, spread out like a movie screen, 12-feet wide, showing the course of life from birth to death, he refused to explain his allegory: “Explanations and obvious symbols would give the canvas a sad reality and questions asked would no longer be a poem.”
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Many of us have a poem that speaks most directly to our insides, perhaps two, perhaps more. For me, those poems are Wordsworth’s “Intimations Ode,” and Chaucer’s Trouthe. I read them over and over, and especially at times of distress or emotional trauma. The poetry expresses something larger than the words mean directly. They resonate and make our psyches into soundboards.
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STEM and humanities are not opposites; they complement each other. Teaching our children trigonometry and physics without feeding their inner lives at the same time reminds me of the time I was invited to the home of an acquaintance where the walls were entirely bare of art or any decoration — not even an Olan Mills store-bought portrait of the kids. The house felt chill and empty. Like the vacuum of space.
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Finally, I hesitate to defend humanities on simply practical grounds — that it makes us think more clearly, opens our minds to things we knew not of, informs our decisions as citizens, makes graceful our lives.
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I would rather make the case that learning — all learning, whether science or history or literature or mathematics — makes us more interesting to ourselves.
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When I went to college, in 1966 — more than a half a century in the rear-view mirror — I never considered whether my degree would prepare me for a job. Never entered my mind. No, I went to college with the hunger and avidity of someone who wanted to learn, who wanted to know everything. My first semester of my freshman year, I signed up for 23 credit hours; I would have signed up for 40 if they would have let me. I took classes in the widest range of disciplines: Shakespeare; the ancient Greek language; astronomy; the history of India.
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I know I am preaching to the choir here. Those who have signed up for Spirit of the Senses have that same kind of curiosity and come to lectures on everything from how bees think to current politics in Europe to Homer’s Odyssey. And that is just this month.
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Learning is its own reward; considering it as leverage to ensure employment is at best misguided, and at worst, shallow.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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