Letter: Don’t dismiss the humanities

By Bill Gregoricus /

Published Aug 30, 2014 at 12:04AM

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In his recent column, Nicholas Kristof advocates the need for the study of the humanities as an analytic tool to look at ourselves in this highly digital age. He wrote that “To adapt to a changing world, we need new software for our cellphones; we also need new ideas.”

So where do these new ideas come from? I agree and support that the study of the humanities/philosophy can add value to the science-driven processes that guide our responses to the world.

Societal advancement requires more than just science and algorithms. We have countless educated people in this nation’s capital, on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley, but are we advancing as individuals and as a nation? We elected a black president, but look at the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri. The Dow may be at record levels, but where is the comparable societal advancement of that rising tide?

The very essence of the American Dream is our confidence that our children will live better than we do. That doesn’t seem to be the case, today. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll put an exclamation point on Americans’ lost optimism.

When asked whether “life for our children’s generation will be better than it has been for us,” fully 76 percent said they do not have such confidence. Only 21 percent did. That was the worst ever recorded in the poll; in 2001, 49 percent were confident and 42 percent not. So much for the real value of some company’s new app or smartphone.

We have always looked to science to help construct our perfect world. But does science address and inquire into the state of our values and emotions? Where are the algorithms that address those two items?

Science establishes a process, measures and reports the final significance of a specific and defined process. But we need to remember and appreciate that it often takes another type of mind to understand the result and critically ascertain and synthesize those results, their fuller impact in relation to understanding its potentially larger meaning and ultimately, its worth and applicability — or lack thereof.

This is not a rebuke to science’s value to our lives. I believe Kristof was asking us to step back and look beyond science and technology and our tendency to overly rely on them as our savior. How do we begin that process? Basically, it requires a different education, a different type of intellect and the use of that intellect which is usually found in the study of the humanities/philosophy.

What are the humanities, what is philosophy? In the traditional study of philosophy, one studies:

• Logic: The study of the ideal method in thought and research, observation and introspection, inductive and deductive reasoning and analysis and synthesis.

• Aesthetics: The study of beauty.

• Ethics: The study of the ideal conduct (some offer that it’s the study of good and evil).

• Politics: The study of the ideal social structure.

• Metaphysics: The study of the ultimate reality of all things and the interrelationship of mind and matter.

I offer that the study of these topics and their interrelationships would well serve our children as they speedily go about their digitally consumed, iPad-iPhone lives.

Ralph Waldo Emerson posited: “Do you know the secret of the true scholar? In every man, there is something wherein that I may learn of him; and in that I am his pupil.”

The political and social problem-solving efforts that we read about today are more complex than ever. Googling, Facebooking, tweeting and texting for the answer doesn’t seem to add any valuable insights as to how best to address them and then solve them.

We owe our children (and ourselves) a better starting point than a smartphone and a tablet.

— Bill Gregoricus lives in Bend.