Saturday, April 22, 2017

On Marching for the Humanities

Science is alive and well at the University of Washington. Bill Gates and company always have their checkbooks on hand. We graduate one STEM major after another. One of them, a friend I made after he graduated, told me, "Everything I needed to learn for my first job, I could have learned in two months. Why didn't I take more classes on movies or literature when I could?" Quite a few of my STEM students ask me for recommendations. I'm one of the few teachers who bothered to learn their names. 

Over here in humanities land, we've seen a steady creep in class sizes. Every year, it gets harder to explain to our students what it means to write a good thesis, let alone how to acknowledge a good counterclaim. "Presentist" is a euphemism. The students don't know the dates of World War II, nor why that website arguing for eugenicist pseudo-science is not a valid source. They have not heard of My Lai nor Abu Ghraib. It's true that we arrogant, pinko commie academics may not always be the best means for changing our students' outlooks. We may be silly people studying weird artifacts from our own or other cultures. We may spend too much of our time reading difficult theory. We don't write as well as we should. And, yeah, we may not listen to enough conservative thinkers. (Do you see how I'm acknowledging counterclaims? That's how it's done, students.) But our shortcomings are exactly what make us work. The humanities are humbling. You are trying to learn answers to questions for which there will never be adequate answers. A beloved prof from my college days, a famous scholar who had written an important book on The Merchant of Venice, told our class once that a Shakespeare scholar could at most master eight plays in his lifetime. The best of us know that the answer is usually "I don't know." 

If I were to March for the Humanities, I wouldn't be carrying signs making fun of students who couldn't manage more than a C in my class. Ghostbusters costumes. "Bill Nye for President!" Any thoughts for climate-change refugees? Kids in areas near refinery plants suffering respiratory illnesses? I don't need to go to war with science, and I've met many polymaths who have bridged the sciences and the humanities. Those guys are the best. They're super-human.

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