Rethinking the Humanities and advancing civilization in a violent world

As we consider whether or not the Humanities serve a public good and warrant public support, we cannot emphasize enough that ideas are a matter of life and death. At the dawn of the twentieth century, Kabul and Kandahar were almost as remote from New York as the Moon is today. But in the first year of the twenty-first century, we saw that the most remote and geo-politically weak space on earth could strike the centers of global power. Pressing issues such as the anxiety over oil and Israel may be in the foreground, but these are largely accelerants to a deeper intellectual encounter, a war of ideas that have evolved over thousands of years, across thousands of miles, and within thousands of languages.

We need better ways to understand the cultures that drive economic and political systems upon which our biological lives depend. First, we need to understand the connections, often surprising, that bind superficially distinct cultures. Kandahar was in fact founded by Alexander the Great —  one Alexandria among several in his empire. The great translation movement centered in Baghdad from c. 800 to 1000 CE made more Greek Science, Medicine, and Philosophy available in Arabic than has been translated into any modern language since. A second translation movement, with strong centers in Spain and Sicily, amade Arabic scholarship available in Latin – Aristotle re-emerged in the West because Muslim scholars had not only translated his work but had gone far beyond the Greek starting points and provided foundations on which Christian thinkers could build. Western Europe built upon a foundation forged in Greek and Arabic. As Dimitri Gutas, an expert on Greek and Arabic points out, the dense cultural network of which the Europe is a part extends – and has extended for thousands of years — at least until India.

Ideas as well as material objects traveled back and forth from the Pacific to Atlantic, and as we contemplate complementary systems, such as the spread of Greek culture and the development of Ancient China, we can compare Plato and Confucius or Thucydides and Sun Tzu  and open up questions of parallel development and shared human values.. When we examine American individualism, with its connections to pre-Christian, brutally competitive ideas in Greco-Roman culture, we can also ask how this might compare to cultural patterns that emphasize social cohesion and harmony in Asian societies with roots in Confucian thought. This is merely an example of a kind of analysis that raises questions of practical importance, especially as the United States and Europe become ever more closely linked to an ever more powerful China.

The act of posing these questions – about fundamental ideas that have shaped civilizations around the world – is arguably more important than the answers that we fashion. We need the intellectual tools to think about the problems and achievements of our own cultures and a respectful curiosity about other cultures that does not shy away from questions. When American journalist Robin Wright first met Iranian President Khatami in 1998, he quoted Plato and asked “what is justice?” to a bemused group of reporters, who had “all come to talk about issues a bit more pressing than ancient Greek philosophy.” But Khatami’s ideas struck a chord when he suggested that we need a Dialogue, rather than a Clash, of Civilizations.  The year 2001 was designated by the United Nations as the year for the dialogue of civilizations.  Tragically, as we all know, that year instead was marked by a new exchange of violence rather than ideas.

What then can we do to grapple with the ideas that threaten our stability and security?  From my standpoint, as a college professor who thinks about equipping the next generation with the kind of education that will sustain them in this new century, it is the Humanities that provide – or can provide – the space in which a real dialogue can take place. The disciplines of the humanities – philosophy, literature, history, classics, to mention several —  are essential to the pursuit of genuine understanding across diverse cultures and intellectual frameworks.  That said, those of us with the privilege to dedicate our lives to advancing our understanding of human record have a great deal of work to do In most areas of the humanities, academic culture, rooted in traditions of print publication, has produced a highly erudite and very narrow channel of communication, with publications that few could see, much less understand, and a hierarchical culture to which only those with advanced degrees and who wrote in a handful of European languages could contribute. Our students have been subjects in a kingdom of learning, measured by how far short they fell of the yardsticks that others had established for them. Today, those yardsticks seem out of date and frequently irrelevant to the dialogues taking place around the world with the help of new communication technologies.

These same technologies —  that have accelerated the circulation of both hateful speech and new ideas across the globe — allow us to transform our intellectual lives as well. Each of us can explore a wider intellectual space than we could a generation ago. Professional researchers can explore broader questions in greater depth than was feasible before the digital age. Our students can become our collaborators – indeed, we need them for the shift to a digital space has made publicly available far more content than a handful of professional scholars can ever interpret. We are poised to create a new humanities education that integrates the most advanced analytical methods with our most ancient goals and that produces a generation better able to think about where they have come from and where they are going. And we have now the tools to expand our collaborations across languages and cultures, to develop intellectual and personal relationships with our colleagues from whom we had been cut off. Few Classicists, for example, realize that the University of Cairo supports one of the most active programs in Greek and Latin in the world because they publish largely in Arabic and because print culture, with its massive libraries, favored a handful of universities in the first world.

Vast digital collections and increasingly sophisticated technologies transform what is possible and challenges us to rethink how we can, in this emerging space, more fully realize those goals towards which our predecessors have labored, whether they were in India or the Near East, Europe or China. We now have an opportunity to build a republic of letters that spans languages and cultures, that advances the intellectual life of humanity and that contributes ever more, tangibly and intangibly to growing communities around the globe.

There are no quick solutions to the problems that we face. We can pull our sons and daughters from the mountains of Afghanistan or we can continue the work at hand, but the larger issues at play, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, often do not revolve around science and medicine but around history and ideas. The popular American cable channel of the same name aptly states “History – made every day,” but that history reaches back thousands of years and across thousands of languages. These are not small topics. We need both an educated populace and experts who are dedicated not only to their personal research, but also to serving the good of their societies and of humanity as a whole. If we in the Humanities can articulate, and then grow more fully into, those goals, then we not only serve ourselves and our students but contribute tangibly to a better world.

Gregory Crane

Professor and Chair, Department of Classics
Winnick Family Chair of Technology and Entrepreneurship
Adjunct Professor, Computer Science
Editor-in-Chief, Perseus Project
Tufts University
November 9, 2010

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One Response to Rethinking the Humanities and advancing civilization in a violent world

  1. I’m sure this powerful and challenging piece is being discussed elsewhere (I know it’s been posted to several email lists), but I wanted to cross-post here a comment I made elsewhere, because I think it does have bearing on the bigger picture discussed here (and in an earlier post) of why the Humanities is valuable in a civilized world:

    “It may be hard to justify in financial terms […] having students spend 3+ years becoming expert in only one very narrow field of the Humanities, but in intellectual and cultural terms, that is, the real reason that we have an education system in the first place, specialism is surely an essential part of research training. I’m all for interdisciplinarity and being a renaissance jack-of-many-trades, but it is precisely the hyper-specialism of focusing on a single genre of nineteenth-century literature, or a particular feature of one ancient culture’s art that allows a person (even one who is never going to use this specialism directly) to understand the concept of in-depth research and understanding of a literary object in its full context. (Maybe we can’t sell Humanities education in those terms at the moment, but we should never forget that that’s what it’s about.)”

    The term “literary object” in the above quote refers, of course, to any piece of text or information in the world, from a newspaper article or television commercial, to a piece of propaganda or an international treaty. These all have to be read in their context and they all require critical attention and patient, skeptical thinking.

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