DIALOGUES | Humanities: As Necessary Today as Yesterday

February 26, 2014 2:00 am0 comments


The great writer, literary scholar and Cornell professor, Vladimir Nabokov –– who also happened to be a scientist –– said in a 1962 interview, “During my years of teaching literature at Cornell and elsewhere, I demanded of my students the passion of science and the patience of poetry.” While the debates about STEM versus the humanities continue, I am left thinking about how great it would be if more institutions of higher learning embraced both in the way we always have at Cornell.

Upon my return to the College of Arts and Sciences to serve as dean, I was struck by what has remained constant in the thirty years since I graduated from the University. We have a strong, interdisciplinary academic community that is constantly generating new ideas. We have excellent, dedicated teachers who challenge students to expand their imaginations and sharpen their critical and creative responses to all they encounter. We enroll impressive, independent and diverse students and scholars who are on their own paths to discovery. The College of Arts and Sciences is — and has always been — a college of ideas, imagination and discovery, whether we are teaching chemistry, physics, government or Romance studies.

We often think that our grand challenges of the day rely solely on breakthroughs in science and technology. However, many of our greatest challenges are fundamentally human.



I am reminded of another legendary Cornell professor, Carl Sagan, who wrote, “It is an exhilarating experience to read poetry and observe its correlation with modern science. Profound scientific thought is hardly a rarity among the poets.” That link between imagination and discovery in the humanities and sciences is expressed today in a popular University course, History 1700: The History of Exploration: Land, Sea and Space. It is co-taught by Prof. Mary Beth Norton, history, and Prof. Steve Squyres, astronomy.

Interdisciplinary collaboration and scholarship is in our DNA as a university, and the humanities and related social sciences have as much relevance in addressing our most pressing challenges as the STEM disciplines do. Maybe that’s why we haven’t seen a decline in humanities majors to the extent that other colleges have experienced in this country. Though we did see a decrease in 2011, the number of majors in the humanities is ticking back upward. However, we will not know if there has been a longer-term shift towards the STEM disciplines until a few years from now. But whether they are English majors, economics majors or physics majors, I remain optimistic that our students come to Cornell for the great liberal arts education they receive here.

As society confronts urgent world problems, it is worth remembering that humanists often raise more questions than answers: Asking questions is a powerful way to engage the public in thinking through some of our most pressing issues. The great Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison M.A. ’55 once wrote, “There is really nothing more to say — except ‘why.’ But since ‘why’ is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in ‘how.’”

We often think that our grand challenges of the day rely solely on breakthroughs in science and technology. However, many of our greatest challenges are fundamentally human: the erosion of public ethics, the fraying of a shared public discourse, the growth in exclusionary ideologies, the declining commitment to liberal culture and arts and a crisis of confidence in a shared and improved future. These pressing concerns beg for engagement by humanists.

Humanities education –– as part of a broader liberal arts education — is as necessary today as it was yesterday and the day before. It is the education of the whole person, and a wholly educated public is the foundation for a wholly informed electorate. The humanities are necessary not only for the creation of democracy, but also for the sustenance of that democracy. However, the humanities serve more than civic participation. The humanities challenge us to see the world through other perspectives. That experience fosters empathy, compassion, creativity, clarity of expression and deep understanding — qualities that must be in play when working to solve the world’s great problems.

Gretchen Ritter ’83 is the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. This column is part of the Daily Sun Dialogues, a new digital project launched this week. Read more at dialogues.cornellsun.com.