Opinion | Columns

Timeless humanities

Having recently gone through, with so many of my classmates, the unpleasantness of formally extracting a course of study from the dizzying myriad offered in the academy, the inevitable question arises of what, precisely, one does with a degree in Classics or English literature or, the granddaddy of all useless disciplines, Philosophy. Historically, the humanities have collectively occupied the pinnacle of Western education. Today, they are under siege from the forces of pre-professionalism and the sciences, though the latter does so surreptitiously, and, I think, potentially even unwittingly.

Most, I imagine, have no quibble with the assertion that modern pre-professional schools and degrees at the college level are antagonistic to the humanities. Barring the once-in-a-generation David McCullough, the humanities are not perceived as the surest road to riches or a secure vocation. To that end, one can decamp to Stern or Wharton and graduate after four years, diploma in hand and under the impression that Virginia Woolf is an indigenous canine of the Tidewater.

The more interesting tension is between humanities and the sciences, both social and physical. Science is probably not the ultimate destroyer of souls that those who champion arts and letters would claim, but it surely does not generate progress unyielding—as it trumpets—without some corresponding loss. The sciences seek definitive answers and excel in reducing things to naked, constituent pieces: Two and two are four as surely as hydrogen and oxygen combine to become water. The element of mystery that pervades the cosmos exists only out of ignorance—it is meant to be uncovered and, ultimately, conquered. After all, if mankind can totally understand the universe, then he may rule it most completely, obliterating the need for those things that transcend himself.

The belief that everything is solvable and quantifiable is not necessarily by nefarious design. It is simply the structure of the sciences. It thrives on the forward motion of research, and, by that virtue, manages curiously to perpetuate and destroy itself ad infinitum. Discoveries about voting patterns of immigrants in southeastern Peoria or breakthroughs in genetic sequencing are exciting and tangible, whereas a discourse on The Politics is less so. The point of the classics is not necessarily to expand on them, but to understand what they say and to import those lessons into personal history.

Humanities are cherished at Columbia, perhaps uniquely so. We hold a recognition about their exceptional beauty and enduring truth. Why else, indeed, would the school put their students through a serious literary, philosophical, musical, and artistic sequence if these subjects had nothing to offer? There is something elegant, no doubt, in the order of a Taylor series and something satisfying in an equation that resolves neatly, but even conveying that charm mandates the humanities to give them voice. Order is a philosophical idea, and to describe beautiful things in coarse language is somehow to degrade them.

Ultimately, the humanities, I think, enrich our lives in a way that science simply cannot. Before swarms of SEAS students angrily protest, however, I hastily add that I am immensely grateful for modern advances. But were I under house arrest, I know I would rather have Eliot’s Harvard Classics over a slide rule and a problem set. Put simply, great books—the bedrock of the humanist tradition—improve our souls. They do nothing more than that, for they are worthwhile in and of themselves. The defender of the humanities who would describe its concrete benefits, like “better critical analysis,” is offering the wrong apology. The humanities orient us towards what is good, the highest end of all.

Science, ultimately, cannot talk about what is right. It can develop the nuclear bomb, but cold technology serves little purpose if it is not guided by proper reason. Should science ever truly reach its goal of fully analyzing the world, what, then, is left? One could, I suppose, make marginal improvements in machinery or minutely refine skills, but one can contemplate tragedy and comedy, old age and youth, with deep passion for perpetuity. It is not the liberal arts that are dated and defunct, but ironically the sciences, which move and break down so often. Today’s newest theories and technologies are, in an instant, obsolete. First and permanent things, however, remain constant. The humanities are painted as static, whereas they should be properly regarded as timeless instead.

I do not pretend to know how to reconcile the differences between these two camps, and both have something to contribute. Perhaps the two are not so deeply opposed, but need conjunction. The Core has both scientific and humanist requirements, after all, and good majors, I found, hopefully blend both elements. Yet, in the end, to be humane is to have some special insight into fellow man, and to have chanced onto what is, and always will be.

Stephen Wu is a Columbia College sophomore. The Remnant runs alternate Wednesdays.


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Anonymous posted on

yeah wait till u get to senior year stephen and find out that there are no jobs for humanities majors. but hey, at least you'll be a better human being!

Anonymous posted on

The best way to study human life is by being a part of it. Staying sheltered in academia, no matter how deeply you philosophize, will never give you the depth on life that working in and understanding change in our world will. How can you have an opinion on Marx or Machiavelli if you've never worked a 40-hour workweek? Science is not a cold-hearted ends but a means, and most of all, a journey. Studying the humanities does not necessarily make you a better person...some of the nicest and most down-to-earth people I know are in SEAS.