Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Edward Teller's Memoirs.

Word cloud

Word cloud

Sunday, March 13, 2016

STEM vs. humanities, round 2^1,000

There's an interesting article in the Chronicle on the humanities, philology, and the respective roles of science and humanities in the modern era.  I will excerpt some choice quotes here.

1) On the emphasis on the present over the past:
No textual culture in human history has been so indifferent to its own past, and this indifference strongly suggests that, though we continue to tweet and "text" and share memes, we are moving into a post-textual era. For those who continue to write academic theses, it’s surely the case that there are more dissertations published per year on Buffy the Vampire Slayer than on Baudelaire. If you set out to work on Babylonian calendars or something else that is truly primordial, you are bound to be seen as something of an eccentric. You will be seen, that is, just as your nonacademic family members see you, as someone "into some pretty obscure stuff." Humanists, then, are growing nearly as presentist, as clueless about historical legacies, as oblivious of origins, as everyone else.
2) On the relative prominence of science and humanities:
Today we see humanists attempting to get in on the action of the scientists down the hall, which is to say to mount the gravy train of grant-seeking that favors work purporting to be of scientific relevance. Thus marginal philosophers specializing in phenomenology will attempt to show that phenomenology is relevant to neuroscience, and scholars who work on the Scientific Revolution will claim that their research is necessary to understand developments in biotech. The sad irony is that not too long ago the cachet flowed in the opposite direction: Scientists went to considerable lengths to show that what they were doing was relevant to the people we think of today as humanists.
I don't entirely agree with this.  In academic circles, humanities fields do continue to enjoy a certain prominence for being more "intellectual" than science.  However, intellectualism now enjoys less prominence.  Just last week I lamented that too many physics majors don't read physics books or articles that weren't assigned. At least one colleague thought I was crazy to lament this.  Note that some of my colleagues also dismiss the importance of "book smarts."

3) I think he wants to reinvent archaeology:
All of which brings me to my humble proposal to restructure the academy and solve the two-cultures problem: Create a single, unified, scientific discipline dedicated to accounting for the state of the world by reconstructing the past using whatever means available — texts, stone tools, burial mounds, tree rings, sediment deposits, fossils, cosmic background radiation. This discipline can be housed in the "faculty of history," and mechanisms should be put in place to ensure that textual scholars do not retreat into their own little world, as if the sort of traces they study had nothing to do with the other sorts.
As is so often the case, this article is better at diagnosing problems than  it is at proposing solutions.  If solutions were easy then the world would have no problems.

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