As a student of the humanities, and as someone who once considered becoming a professional scholar in the humanities, I have some interest in their future, particularly because I sense trying times ahead. I do not think that the world ten years hence, much less twenty or thirty, will provide a hospitable environment for the humanities as we have long known them. Thus do I append my name to the long list of commentators noting the increasingly subaltern position the humanities occupy in American higher education. All that needs to be said on that head has been said, contested, reaffirmed, and denied by so many people in so many fora that I feel no need to do more here than state that I too see difficulties on the horizon for those entering what was once my chosen profession (and may one day be again).
I bring up the subject, however, because it strikes me that for all our unresolved arguments over the real (un)deserved fate of such subjects as literature and history, and, increasingly, film in higher education, we have not brought the subject of the humanities place in our day-to-day lives enough publicity. Perhaps I feel this way simply because I desire more public interaction with my pet interests, but I cannot help wishing that literature, in particular, could find a way to obtrude with the efficacy and insistency that science does in the daily lives of my fellow citizens.
What do I mean by this? I mean that science seems always so pushy, so willing to assert, “You can do this better with science,” no matter what the pursuit in question. That it does not always succeed is immaterial. It succeeds often and well enough, making things better, that its claims are seldom questioned. Nor am I here to question them. However, I feel sometimes that science’s claim to provide improvement to almost any procedure might be beneficially repeated by any number of disciplines, including my own. I would like to be able to say to most anyone, “You could do this better, with poetry,” and not be laughed out of the room.
Is making that claim really a bridge so far that even the thought of crossing it is laughable? I want to believe it isn’t. How much of the world’s text (and there is so much text in the world these days) need by dry, boring, bereft even the slightest whiff of figurative, or (god forbid) decorative, language? Why should the 9th grade Chemistry book be a monument to plain vanilla prose? Are paper and ink so precious that none can be spared for a hint of narrative, character, or rhyme? Supposing the textbook were to follow the Adventures of Zander Beakersworth in Lab-land, chronicling his epic duel with the dreaded Exotherms, malevolent, fire-breathing titans of molten glass bent on an oxidative apocalypse only Chemistry can prevent.
Would the book be longer? Yes. Would the students be more likely to read it? Maybe. They certainly read more Percy Jackson than they do Zumdhal -- that much I can attest from personal experience. Is it such a stretch to argue that Chemistry could be better with a little film, literature, or history thrown in? For that matter, what of the fine arts? Must every graphic a student comes across be a bare-bones sketch or a drab photograph? Where are the artists’ conceptions of the electron cloud, done up in dazzling neon, literally glittering with bonding potential? Where are the illustrative comic strips, summing up in a pithy frame or two the teleological crutches ALL theorists rely upon but for some reason hesitate to put down on paper? I know we don't rely on manuscript the way we used to a thousand years ago, but wouldn't a little illumination go a long way, even now?
I go on a bit here, but I hope my point has come across. Society has space for so much more humanity, and it seems that if no one pushes to fill it, it remains empty. If we humanists ever hope to see a science textbook with a witty epigram on the inside cover, or fancy Gothic capitals in the chapter headings, we may have to start asserting ourselves a bit more.