Robert Newman defends humanities programs


Daniel Bayer/The Carolinian

Daniel Bayer
   Staff Writer

Director of the National Humanities Center Robert Newman made an impassioned defense of college and university humanities programs at the “Humanities Moments & The Heroic” event held at Scuppernong Books in Greensboro Thursday night.

“Technology cannot assess the multiple masks of evil. Only in the humanities do we have that conversation,” Newman said during his remarks, emphasizing the humanities’ ability to tackle the things that science cannot.

The center, located in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, supports scholarship, education and public engagement related to the humanities.

As part of that mission, the center is collecting examples of “humanities moments” —“unexpected miracles that provide meaning, sharpen purpose and offer depth,” according to its website.

As an example of such a moment, Newman cited Robert Kennedy’s visit to Indianapolis in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“He arrived to find an enthusiastic crowd and — realizing they did not know of the assassination — broke the terrible news,” Newman said. “Against outcries of pain and anger, he calmed those assembled, quoting Aeschylus. ‘My favorite poet was Aeschylus,’ he said. ‘He once wrote: ‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’”

Newman continued to explained the significance of that speech.

“That night, Indianapolis was the only city in the U.S. with a major African American population that did not burn,” said Newman. “I consider this a humanities moment: when a lesson from the classics offered context and understanding to a people in overwhelming shock and pain.”

Newman decried what he called the “one-dimensional trajectory” towards the science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — disciplines in higher education.

“To those who argue the humanities cannot cure cancer, cannot win a war against terrorists or increase your paycheck and therefore should take a back seat to those enterprises that can, consider the following: Without the ability to listen carefully and engage with a patient’s narrative — in other words, to take a good case history — early detection and prevention of many cancers do not occur,” Newman said. “And for those who must endure treatment or make critical decisions regarding how they live and sometimes how they die, humanities touchstones matter as much as chemical interventions.”

Newman refuted the common perception that humanities graduates are on a “road to nowhere.”

“Kenneth Burke wrote of literature as providing ‘equipment for living,’” Newman said. “Indeed, humanities skills offer a multifaceted and adaptable toolbox for navigating career shifts and changing workforce demands. And it is a statistical fact that liberal arts majors earn more during their lifetimes.”

Following his remarks, Newman took questions from the small audience gathered at the rear of the bookstore, including one regarding a perceived “skills gap” in college graduates.

“The job I had prior to the one I currently have was as a dean,” replied Newman. “I went around the state of Utah quite often talking to potential employers. The number one thing they would always say about potential employees is that they can’t write crisply. The second thing they would say is that they lacked critical thinking skills. Those are skills that humanities classes are central to teaching.”

Lisa Levenstein, an associate professor of history at UNC-Greensboro who attended the speech, agreed that the humanities are under assault in university systems across the country.

“The belief that the humanities are not useful is alive and well,” Levenstein said. “Voices like his are vital to tell people that the humanities are important in our common lives. The humanities are for people of all backgrounds, not just for the elite.”

Levenstein went on to say about UNCG that the institution “has played a vital role in promoting a broad education in the humanities and liberal arts for all students.”

High school math teacher Liz Zimmer, another attendee, echoed Levenstein’s sentiments.

“I’m interested in the conversation of STEM versus the humanities,” Zimmer said. “My math students won’t write. They want me to give them the algorithm and they just do it over and over again. Math should be about more than that.”

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