Sunday, November 21, 2010

Why Haven't More People Picked Up on This?


At Genome Biology, Gregory Petsko has a wonderful piece on the value of the humanities. It’s an open letter to George M. Philip, President of the State University of New York at Albany, who decided to close the departments of classics, theater arts, French, Italian, and Russian because they attracted only a “paucity of students.”

Petsko, a biochemistry professor at Brandeis and member of the National Academy of Sciences, really lays into Philip:
I guess I shouldn't be surprised that you have trouble understanding the importance of maintaining programs in unglamorous or even seemingly 'dead' subjects. From your biography, you don't actually have a PhD or other high degree, and have never really taught or done research at a university. Perhaps my own background will interest you. I started out as a classics major. I'm now Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry. Of all the courses I took in college and graduate school, the ones that have benefited me the most in my career as a scientist are the courses in classics, art history, sociology, and English literature. These courses didn't just give me a much better appreciation for my own culture; they taught me how to think, to analyze, and to write clearly. None of my sciences courses did any of that.
Here's the devastating close:
Some of your defenders have asserted that this is all a brilliant ploy on your part - a master political move designed to shock the legislature and force them to give SUNY Albany enough resources to keep these departments open. That would be Machiavellian (another notable Italian writer, but then, you don't have any Italian faculty to tell you about him), certainly, but I doubt that you're that clever. If you were, you would have held that town meeting when the whole university could have been present, at a place where the press would be all over it. That's how you force the hand of a bunch of politicians. You proclaim your action on the steps of the state capitol. You don't try to sneak it through in the dead of night, when your institution has its back turned.

No, I think you were simply trying to balance your budget at the expense of what you believe to be weak, outdated and powerless departments. I think you will find, in time, that you made a Faustian bargain. Faust is the title character in a play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It was written around 1800 but still attracts the largest audiences of any play in Germany whenever it's performed. Faust is the story of a scholar who makes a deal with the devil. The devil promises him anything he wants as long as he lives. In return, the devil will get - well, I'm sure you can guess how these sorts of deals usually go. If only you had a Theater department, which now, of course, you don't, you could ask them to perform the play so you could see what happens. It's awfully relevant to your situation. You see, Goethe believed that it profits a man nothing to give up his soul for the whole world. That's the whole world, President Philip, not just a balanced budget. Although, I guess, to be fair, you haven't given up your soul. Just the soul of your institution.
Personally, I dislike the fluffy rhetoric of "soul" or "soul of your institution." Philip's decision gives up no soul but rather very practically gives a scorecard as to what knowledge and experiences should be made available to university students. Wittingly or not, the decision validates an attitude that this-or-that knowledge no longer needs to be taken seriously as part of a university's mission.

In my life outside the university, I meet all sorts of people. They are roboticists and businesspeople. They are scientists, engineers, lawyers, and specialists. The best of these, the most productive and capable, draw obviously on humanities learning. They know poetry and quote it. They care deeply about language and communication. They are curious about history and power. They perform in theater and sit in orchestras. They study language and culture. They reflect on processes and reasoning. The humanities are "out here" where I am. I see it every day.

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