Defending the Humanities

I mostly agree with Jonah Lehrer on the importance of the humanities and liberal arts education generally.

Yes, I hate a lot of what passes for humanities, and I do think that humanities types (of which I am one—B.A. and M.A. in philosophy) are tragically ignorant in math and science. The even more tragic thing is that most math and science is easy. Yes, it gets hard if you go really deeply into it (Algebra I is easy; abstract algebra, not so much.) But the concepts are hardly hard. There’s little excuse to be innumerate any more.

Often humanities types gravitate toward weird subjects because it’s a challenge. Sure, sometimes it’s because they can’t compete in math and science. But often that lack of competitiveness is due to some weird historical accident.

After all, if you’re math and science learning path gets obliterated because you, say, went to public school and your algebra teacher also taught P.E. and was the football coach, it can be hard to catch up because of the nature of the subject More so if you are poor, because you can’t afford videos from Thinkwell and The Teaching Company and trips to Kumon Math centers.

In other subjects, if you’re relatively smart, it’s easy to catch up even without money. You can learn, say, all of U.S. history before learning Roman history, and then skip back to Renaissance history. Sequence doesn’t matter.

The humanities have another benefit: their study requires writing. It’s funny to me that symbol manipulation (logic, algebra, calculus and even much chemistry), often without any conceptual understanding, is prized. Think about all the work in formal languages—linguistics and logic. That’s all great stuff and has led to fantastic breakthroughs, but only because of the computer. Had the computer not been invented, much of that research would have been useless. If you doubt this, take a stroll through medieval logic: untethered from reality, abstract reasoning is just symbol manipulation, like reading a poem in a foreign language you don’t understand.

Writing and language—here we have the most powerful, domain-indpendent, extensible, flexible tool even seen. Human language and communication is a miracle! It’s sad that it’s use isn’t stressed more generally. The only place it is is the humanities, which is reason enough for them to exist.

And now pardon me while I go back to reading Henry VI Pt. 1.