We should recognize the value of the humanities

On April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, Robert F. Kennedy arrived in Indianapolis for a campaign rally. Advised against taking the stage in a part of the city considered a dangerous ghetto, Kennedy insisted on going. He arrived to find an enthusiastic crowd, and –realizing they did not know of the assassination – broke the terrible news. Against outcries of pain and anger, he calmed those assembled, quoting Aeschylus.

“My favorite poet was Aeschylus,” he said. “He once wrote: ‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’”

Kennedy mentioned his own pain over the killing of his brother and spoke of the necessity for compassion regardless of race. Indianapolis was the only city in the U.S. with a major African-American population that did not burn that night. I consider this a humanities moment – when a lesson from the classics offered context and understanding to a people in overwhelming shock and pain.

Humanities’ investigations and revelations concern the most crucial elements of human experience – love and loss, beauty and truth, right and wrong, joy and despair, meaning and emptiness. Whether we reflect on our personal or our national history, it is these moments that are most resonant, to which we continually return to mark who we are as individuals and as a culture.

It is troubling, then, to hear prominent politicians dismiss the liberal arts as a “road to nowhere” or suggest that the purpose of our universities is little more than “to meet the state’s workforce needs.” To those who argue the humanities cannot cure cancer, cannot win a war against terrorists, or increase your paycheck, and therefore should take a back seat to those enterprises that can, consider the following:

Without the ability to listen carefully and engage with a patient’s narrative – in other words, to take a good case history – early detection and prevention of many cancers do not occur. And for those who must endure treatment or make critical decisions regarding how they live and sometimes how they die, humanities touchstones matter as much as chemical interventions.

As for the war on terror, had those who occupied the White House in 2003 more attentively considered the history of Iraq and its neighbors, would we be fighting ISIS today?

The all-too-common framing of a choice between liberal arts, for which the humanities are basic, and STEM programs presents us with a false binary. Yet many institutions of higher learning have seized this one-dimensional trajectory, failing to recognize that humanities and STEM disciplines are complementary, necessary to each other’s sustenance and application.

Absent a humanities perspective, solutions to environmental degradation, climate change, immigration, geopolitical cataclysms, and the implementation of technologies will remain incomplete.

Humanities moments occur daily in the lives of every human being. When the personal harmonizes with the collective, humanities moments occur. They are the unexpected miracles that provide meaning, sharpen purpose, and offer depth – profound pauses in the otherwise frantic and self-absorbed scurrying that characterizes our gettings and spendings. And, when we recognize their exquisite and resounding centrality, we better understand the foundation of the democratic society of which they are a product and which they produced.

Robert D. Newman is President and Director of the National Humanities Center