against using the humanities instrumentally

Imagine this scenario: most college students major in humanities disciplines, while the applied sciences languish. The National Endowment for the Humanities spends 250 times as much money as the National Institutes for Health, instead of vice-versa.

Kindly humanists recognize the value of the applied sciences and gather among themselves to consider how to involve their STEM colleagues in their research. For instance, some humanities professors might be working on the 2025 presidential theme of the Modern Language Association: visibility and invisibility in various kinds of texts. Others are addressing the theme of the American Historical Association’s presidential address: “conversations with the dead.” After brainstorming ways for STEM colleagues to contribute to these agendas, they might come up with proposals. Maybe computer scientists could build a website for presenting the invisible aspects of texts? Come to think of it, the WiFi in the Humanities Center seems a little unreliable–could the Comp. Sci. department help with that?

This is satire, but I want to challenge well-intentioned ways that STEM researchers and administrators often view the humanities. Basically, they assume that important agendas come from the applied sciences, including the biomedical fields. The humanities are worth consulting in two main ways.

First, humanists might be able to address the ethical questions that arise in engineering or health projects. In my view, applied ethics is important, but it involves a tiny proportion of humanists. Besides, if the agenda is already determined, then the ethical horizon is narrow. For example, the question is not whether to have private tech. companies, but how they should design AI tools.

Second, STEM people sometimes hope that humanists can help with communication–they can frame convincing messages for the public good. But humanists are more typically interested in reading against texts, or understanding the relationships among texts, or interpreting especially complex texts that are not particularly accessible, or challenging the assumptions in texts. Studying these questions does not make one particularly good at communicating with broad audiences.

I believe in the engaged or public or civic humanities. I don’t think that humanities professors should set their own agendas in isolation and expect society to pay for their work. I argue that humanists must engage the diverse public in two-way conversations, affecting the public debate while also responding to it.

Therefore, I see value in interdisciplinary projects that originate in the STEM disciplines and that involve limited numbers of humanists. As a philosophy PhD, I often find myself in such roles and enjoy them. But most of the potential is lost if the STEM fields always set the agendas and if the humanities are seen as merely useful around the edges.

See also: “The world wants the humanities”; what the humanities contribute to interdisciplinary research projects; Tisch Program in Public Humanities

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.