Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The need for humanists

Bill Gates came out with his annual letter yesterday.  I haven't read it yet, but I did read excerpts from an interview he did in connection with it, in which he says this.

If you zoom out a little bit, and you look at the acceleration of science over the past 100 years, and the basic understanding we have gained and the tools we have, and the percentage of people in the world getting literate and getting engineering degrees, those numbers are on the constant rise.
Of course the humanist in me wishes he had rued the absence of people getting humanities degrees, but he didn't. The market pricing of those certainly indicates that the world thinks it is getting enough of them, and it is always difficult to argue with the market.

Certainly the humanities have done a good job of shooting themselves in the foot by trying to be ever holier in thou in their calls for ever greater purity and complexity around a greater number of granular behavioral standards. Although, at root, humanists are trying to address the big questions, they all too often shy away from letting the questions stay big and letting students wrestle with them to apply the big to the small in their own lives. Instead, they concentrate on the small, and treat lack of fealty thereto as treason against the big.

Buried deep within the current state of the humanities is a belief that absolute progress in ethics can be made, that we can stand on the shoulders of our elders. I tend to doubt that, though certainly our legal code and institutional infrastructure can instantiate progress, individuals must individually come to their own understandings of and positions on the big questions.

Then again, the fact that more than enough people go out and get degrees in the humanities and social sciences at least attests to the fact that lots of people really do want to do good. And the drift of people like Gates from tooth and nail profit-making to trying to address the big questions also attests to the fact that the big questions eventually exert their pull on, if not everyone, than many.

So maybe we don't need more humanists. But we could use more respect, if only we could earn it.

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