A Swift Kick for Us Humanists

Why do the scientists ask all the good, important questions? Wick Sloane wonders.

June 15, 2006

War. Pestilence. Famine. All in the paper again today. And tomorrow. And the day after that. Are we, the people, serious about peace or justice? What I want to know: Who excused the humanities from this mess? I keep trying to draw my professors, the ones I had in college and any others I know, into the fray. We have the tools for the job.

The play, the painting, the music are not the end state. It’s Shakespeare, Cezanne, Mozart standing along the road and reaching out to us on our marathon with a cup of Gatorade. Isn’t The Tempest a lesson for the ages in resiliency after we screw up? That life goes on, albeit with a cost? Matisse asks that we look anew once we walk out of the gallery. Hard to imagine that J.S. Bach wanted us to head home from church and debate key signatures.

Before me, calling the question, are a headline about stem cells and an e-mail from Iraq. Same one you read about two teams of scientists embarking on stem-cell research. Not for the ride but to try for cures to dreadful diseases. The e-mail is from my friend Rich Morales, an Army lieutenant colonel fighting in his second Gulf war. A former White House Fellow, Rich wrote, “I lost a good friend on Memorial Day. That day always meant something to me symbolically, now it’s even more personal. Additionally, my good friend who I worked with in the White House lost a brother here a few weeks ago." Note: Rich writes, too, "I love my country" and doesn't take sides in the politics.

How can we tackle stem cells and leave Rich and his troops sitting in danger? We need to figure out how to stop fighting wars. The U.S. spends billions on research for medicine, science and engineering. Perhaps the rest of us are not looking hard enough for peace. I don’t mean that the humanities have all the answers. The people at the table with the big questions might just need some help.

Why do the hard scientists, as humanists grumble, have all the huge grant money? The party line: “Blame the politicians for the lousy funding.” My hypothesis: “It’s the questions. The humanities asks lousy questions.” Look at the carnage of the 20th Century. Is the human condition, our field, doing any better these days? Not yet. Enough to suggest that the world’s problems would welcome a few new ideas. Why don’t the humanities take responsibility for peace and for justice? Someone has to.

I’m an English major. What are the questions we’re asking now? Well, check out the “Forthcoming Meetings and Conferences of General Interest” (italics mine), from the mother ship, the Modern Language Association. Have another click at topics of fresh grants at the National Humanities Center. "Upcoming Events" at The New York Institute for the Humanities has only a seminar that happened six weeks ago. This is all such a fraction of what the world today needs from the humanities.

This humanities situation grabbed me by the throat one afternoon a few years ago, 13,780 feet up on Mauna Kea (Live Webcam. Take a look.) for a board meeting of the 3.6-meter Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. I asked an astronomer what he was working on. “The equation state of the universe.” Best I can translate: “Where is the universe going and when will it get there?” The magnificent audacity of scientists delights me. They’ll model the whole thing – the universe or a genome. Only the start of the question. Look at where these scientists begin. Christian Veillet, director of the telescope project, also leads a Bach choir and was first to tell me of the Motets.

Here’s the rub. I’ve spent my career so far in business and government. Without the humanities, without The Odyssey or King Lear or Richard II or The Tempest, I would understand even less than I do. My MBA opens doors. Debit left, credit right never hurts. As for the tools for solving problems, my humanities win every time. Again and again, I fail at convincing my professors and their colleagues that they have to take on The Big Questions. I can’t explain sitting on the sidelines to any troops serving in Iraq. Astrophysicists want to model the universe? Be my guest. We’ll model peace. And then justice. What does peace look like?

Humans are good at dissecting Really Big Problems. If a car starts in Washington, D.C., we can map the supply chain and macroeconomic links to a death in Darfur. Time to chart the periodic table of emotional elements here. Why we start our car, anyway. We’re missing something.

A few days after Mauna Kea, I met with some English professors who lamented their department’s aging computers. Their English students had to rely on the generosity of the oceanographers and their computer lab. Fair? Well, we realized, the oceanographers were writing grants to end global warming. The line item for computers was a detail.

The hard scientists are earning their keep. My heroes of the century past are Jonas Salk and Norman Borlaug. Borlaug’s work still feeds millions by putting more grains of wheat on shorter stalks. The rest of us aren’t creating human conditions that can accept these advances at enough scale.

What, with our metaphors, would transform a humanist into a Salk or a Borlaug? Why do we shirk such an impact? For the scientists, it seems, the analysis is a building block toward the shape of the universe or a cure or clean water. I despair. At a humanities conference, I put this to a newly tenured Ivy League art historian. “Well, your question presumes that utility of knowledge is a value,” he said. Almost enough to make me regret Salk’s efforts.

I’m sitting here, too, with books that don’t help my cause. The Discoveries, Great Breakthroughs in 20th Century Science, Including the Original Papers. By Alan Lightman (Pantheon Books, 2005). The other, The New Humanists: Science at the Edge by John Brockman (A Barnes and Noble Book, 2003). Science at the edge? No luck so far on digests of humanities’ accomplishments.

I do consider, on these searches, that if I can I see a problem, I must be wrong. Someone has to be working on this. I Googled "model for peace." A hit at the UNESCO Web site. Promising, but not exactly the "model" I expected: A fashion model who is an advocate for peace. At least Patricia Velasquez is thinking out of the box.

Could we could dream up a NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts for the humanities?

The NEH could have a center that, metaphorically, does what NIAC does: “seeks proposals for revolutionary aeronautics and space concepts that could dramatically impact how NASA develops and conducts its missions. It provides a highly visible, recognizable, and high-level entry point for outside thinkers and researchers. NIAC encourages proposers to think decades into the future in pursuit of concepts that will ‘leapfrog’ the evolution of current aerospace systems. While NIAC seeks advance concept proposals that stretch the imagination, these concepts should be based on sound scientific principles and attainable within a 10 to 40-year time frame.”

Humanists could write the equivalent of Science in Action, How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society, by Bruno Latour (Harvard University Press, 1987). I can’t be alone in thinking that we are insulting to J.S. Bach or Shakespeare or Orwell that that we’re just supposed to sit there as an end. Another alarm is the fine reporting in Radical Evolution, The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies – and What it Means to Be Human, by Joel Garreau (Doubleday, 2005). (Disclosure, Joel is a friend.) Mankind is at work enhancing our bodies and our technical minds. No similar efforts enhancing kindness or generosity or ability to walk away from a fight.

Over the years, the humanities establishment has not missed a chance to surrender necessity and national security to all other fields. Congress just added a supplement to the Pell Grant to encourage study in, where? Science and math and engineering and only languages deemed essential to national security. Why did we yield the SMART grant, acronym and funding, to other disciplines? With the U.S. government “waterboarding” humans they call “detainees,” poor command of English is eroding national security.

I checked in Oslo, though those folks only pay for results, Nobel at least offer s a bit of inspiration, how to think like a Nobel Laureate. Try the one about running a prison camp. The challenge for the humanities is to prevent situations that require prison camps. Yes, I know about the Kluge Prize in human sciences. Another that stops at thought: “The main criterion for a recipient of the Kluge Prize is deep intellectual accomplishment in the human sciences.”

I tried our own National Endowment for the Humanities. Anything motivating, inspiring? Hortatory or even instructive? Not that I found on the Web page. Entertaining but not much use if we are going for the big questions is Tom Wolfe and his NEH Jefferson Lecture. I adore Wolfe, but no help here. More whirled peas than world peace. No section on the questions we must answer to improve the human condition.

I know funding for these models for peace and justice will not roll off presses at Bureau of Printing and Engraving without some sweat and blisters. And some battles.

In the U.S., the federal government spends $15 billion a year, as far as I could total, for research at universities. Our $50 million for peace is not going to fall into anyone’s lap just for imaginative thinking. One thing to be intrigued. Quite another to develop the $100 million grant for justice. I can’t assume those with the grants are looking to share.

We humanists deal often in adages when we are stuck. Here’s one: “If you want something done right.….” I cranked “Carnegie Endowment for International Peace” into Google, hit the Contact Us button and let fly. (Adage: Faint heart wins little.) On Memorial Day, by coincidence.

-----Original Message-----
From: Wick Sloane [mailto:[email protected]ll.com]
Sent: Monday, May 29, 2006 6:27 PM
To: Info
Subject: Visiting Scholar/Grant Application
Congratulations on the fine work of the Endowment. Would you direct me to the information I need to consider making a proposal for funding to design a model for world, or international, peace?

Thank you very much.

J.R.W. Sloane
One Avon Place
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02140

Reply came the next morning before even the coffee could have warmed up at Carnegie.

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: RE: Visiting Scholar/Grant Application
Date: Tue, 30 May 2006 09:01:37 -0400
From: Info
To: Wick Sloane
I'm sorry but the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is not a grant-making organization.
Thank you for your interest.

Where might I turn? I wrote back. No reply.

Note to Jessica Tuchman Matthews, Carnegie President: Whacking the person on a.m. e-mail duty would be a poor response. Instead, let’s have a power breakfast up the street at Kramerbooks. Isn’t the 20th century evidence enough that we need a better handle on the components and causes of peace? Invite Patricia Velasquez.

If you don’t mind a metaphor, shall we let John Milton, asking for help in beginning Paradise Lost, set the bar for a project well beyond our everyday reach?

I thence Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th' Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.

Or in modeling peace? 


Wick Sloane is chief operating officer at Generon Consulting in Massachusetts and former chief financial officer of the University of Hawaii system.


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