Class Notes

Counterculture Culture

Why the humanities matter

By Paula Marantz Cohen | June 18, 2013


I am continually trying to convince people at the higher levels of my university of the value of a humanities education. The focus on STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) has pushed the study of great literature and art to the side and made it seem a negligible add-on. I fear that my usual arguments sometimes come across as lame and self-serving, so I was pleased to discover a more eloquent spokesperson.

Here is an excerpt from a speech by New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier at Brandeis University’s commencement on May 19th. The excerpt was published in the May 29th edition of the Wall Street Journal:

There is no task more urgent in American intellectual life at this hour than to offer some resistance to the twin imperialisms of science and technology, and to recover the old distinction—once bitterly contested, then generally accepted, now almost completely forgotten—between the study of nature and the study of man. As Bernard Williams once remarked, “humanity is a name not merely for a species but also for a quality.” You who have elected to devote yourselves to the study of literature and languages and art and music and philosophy and religion and history—you are the stewards of that quality …

Do not believe the rumors of the obsolescence of your path. If Proust was a neuroscientist, then you have no urgent need of neuroscience, because you have Proust. If Jane Austen was a game theorist, then you have no reason to defect to game theory, because you have Austen. There is no greater bulwark against the twittering acceleration of American consciousness than the encounter with a work of art, and the experience of a text or an image. You are the representatives, the saving remnants of that encounter and that experience, and of the serious study of that encounter and that experience—which is to say, you are the counter-culture. Perhaps culture is now the counterculture.

The urgency Wieseltier expresses will perhaps be mirrored in a report to be released this week by the Academy of Arts and Sciences, the first major assessment of the state of the humanities in the United States in more than 30 years.

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