Humanities' Constituencies

March 10, 2009

WASHINGTON -- C.P. Snow’s depiction of a “gulf of mutual incomprehension” separating scientists from humanists may date to 1959, but it’s still relevant – and cited -- in discussions of the humanities in 2009. Panelists speaking Monday on “The Public Good: The Humanities in a Civil Society” cited Snow in describing a need to better bridge that gulf -- with the consequences of failing to do so exacting a real and human price, argued Patty Stonesifer, chair of the Board of Regents for the Smithsonian Institution and senior adviser to the trustees of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Speaking from her experience combating the AIDS epidemic with the Gates Foundation, Stonesifer stressed a need to focus simultaneously on cultural and scientific aspects. She described a concurrent focus on funding cultural activities intended to soften prevailing stigmas -- such as radio soap operas, poetry competitions and street theater -- with funding for microbicide development, for instance.

The American Academy of Arts & Sciences sponsored the panel discussion at George Washington University, in which speakers focused in large part on broadening the humanities’ perceived scope and constituency. “The case for the humanities is not the case for a narrow constituency,” argued Associate Justice David Souter of the United States Supreme Court. In his prepared remarks, Souter explained the importance of history in shaping an understanding of why judges ruled as they did in different eras. “Where history’s understanding is missing, cynicism will take its place,” he said.

Don Michael Randel, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, described the ultimate goal of the humanities as an ambitious one. “What we really hope for is a certain quality of mind … a way in which the mind never ceases to be full of wonder of the world and all its people,” he said.

Randel added, during the question and answer period, that while he thinks there is a need to move beyond instrumental arguments for the utility of the humanities, that’s not to say there aren’t plenty of good such (instrumental) cases to make. For example: “We can’t wait until a war starts … to learn the language and culture of the people we need to deal with.” Arguably, he continued wryly, benefits can be accrued in learning the languages and cultures of one's allies, too.

Edward L. Ayers, president of the University of Richmond, stressed an area where the great promise of the humanities is unmet. “We are not reaching large numbers of first-generation, immigrant, minority or poor students with the wonder that is the humanities,” he said.

“To be a classics major at an elite school is to see many opportunities ahead. But it takes bravery to be a humanities major at places where Wall Street does not come to recruit” -- or where the best graduate schools do not seem like possibilities, Ayers said.

"The humanities bring the profoundly useful gifts of broadened vision,” Ayers argued. But “an unappreciated crisis of the humanities are that they may not reach those who would find them most useful.”

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