A Surfeit of the Humanities


When the academy bisected its world into “arts” and “sciences” it made a big mistake, for the two are no more separate than 18th century literature from eighteenth century history, or chromosomes from the laws of chemistry and physics. By choosing to confer either a Bachelor of Science or a Bachelor of Arts degree, the world of higher education created a false dichotomy from which seekers of truth have yet to recover.

Keats had it right. “Beauty is truth; truth beauty.” So did Einstein. “Science without religion is lame.” Einstein took the idea further. “A human being is part of a whole, called by us ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest… a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us…. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Reading about writing and scanning multiple book reviews has created concerns. Clearly, the great majority of today’s literary scene is directed inwards. The modern focus is on one’s thoughts and one’s feelings – either directly or by proxy. Identification with – becoming, if you will – an imagined character is paramount. Abstractions trump physical reality and our interactions with it. In Conversations with Saul Bellow, the great novelist intones, “We live among ideas much more than we live in nature.” To me, that’s like saying we need air more than we need water. I prefer Keats’ vision.

Fortunately, in the 1960’s, medical schools were enthusiastic about accepting non-science majors, and, after forty years of doctoring, I remain as convinced as I was during my physiology class that my professional “training” in medicine was a seamless extension of my Bachelor of Arts in English. Even today, medical school commencement speakers regularly precede the word “medicine” with the phrase “science and art of…”. And while the Nobel Prize in Medicine is always granted to an experimental scientist, the best doctors apply the humanities in the same way that they apply scientific knowledge. Close observation of Picasso’s Guernica enhances the psychiatrist’s ability to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Reading The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down improves the care a neurologist can render the young woman suffering from epilepsy.

And there are some signs that the gap is closing beyond medicine. Magnetic Resonance Imaging paints arresting pictures of the brain listening to music. Composers write music based on the sounds and rhythms of brain waves.  Award-winning novelists draw on genetics to enrich their characterizations while award-winning scientists publish novels exploring the biologic and behavioral similarities of ants and men. And a young independent publishing house which has already put forward several bestsellers and prize winners announces in its mission statement its devotion to publishing “literary fiction and nonfiction at the intersection of the arts and the sciences….”

A great deal could be gained if the distinction were further blurred and more thinkers and artists turned their attention to bridging the centuries-old gap. We need more animations like The Inner Life of the Cell and fewer like How to Train Your Dragon. We need more books like Anthill and fewer sequels to Fifty Shades of Grey. We need more music like Paul Winter’s Prayer for the Wild Things and less Gangsta Rap. We need ethicists to reflect more on how we treat the planet and not exclusively on how we should treat one another. And we certainly need more scientists like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson and fewer curmudgeonly researchers complaining that “popularizers” are somehow a lesser breed of scientist.

Great angst is now being expressed among university faculties in departments of arts and humanities over the dramatic decline in interest in their courses. Fingers are often rightfully pointed at the ascendancy of the almighty dollar in today’s culture and the lure of courses which will insure access to the high-rolling districts of the job market. But a fair amount of the blame, I would submit, should also go to the fact that people simply have had enough anthropocentric omphalospection. Enough detailed dissections of tortured interpersonal relations. Enough obsession with obsession. Despite what Ptolemy thought, we humans are not the center of the Universe and the sooner we turn our full attention to the grandeur and wonder of the full range of its intricacies and our modest place among them, rather than how to exploit them, the better.

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