Humanities may help if they aren’t sinking too fast

3 minute read

Some links relevant to the role of the humanities.

Ben Lillie, director of The Story Collider, writes about how the gurus of science communication advice have ignored knowledge in the humanities: “The humanities of science communication”.

This is shocking. Not the conclusion, which is clearly correct. The problem is that the conclusion has been known to comedians for at least the last several thousand years. When I trained in improv comedy the third class was on callbacks, the jargon term for that technique. The entire structure of an improv comedy set is based around variations on the idea that things are funnier if they’re repeated. And yet to the authors it was “common knowledge” that this will spoil a joke. There is a long tradition of people who know, from experience, how this works, and yet the idea of asking them is not evident anywhere in the paper. This is the problem — the sense that the only valid answers come from inside science and the research world.
And that’s the same problem I see in most discussions of how scientists should communicate. The universe of ideas is restricted to those that originated in the sciences.

Creativity works. As Lillie points out, creative solutions can depend on using an effective formula – and winning formulas already have millions of dollars of Hollywood money invested in them precisely because they work. Molière knew this, as have most serious writers and playwrights over the centuries.

One problem is that the humanities today don’t teach this stuff to their students. The practical skills may be known among those who work in writing and entertainment, but they aren’t known among those who study such things. Nor are they conveyed to science students in their humanities elective courses. Academic humanities have been far more about sociopolitics than skills.

That perspective dominates a recent piece by Simon During: Stop Defending the Humanities”.

The humanities join the wider world in other ways. They belong to an economy of prestige that helps prop up class and ethnic hierarchies. Forty or so years ago, Pierre Bourdieu presented a complex, evidence-based theory of how this economy then worked in France. His findings may now be partly out of date, but surveys since have routinely found that those who study the academic humanities disproportionately belong to the white upper-middle class, i.e., those with significant inherited cultural and economic capital. In this situation, those humanities disciplines that have emerged in relation to newer technologies and social movements tend to have less status, and to be taught in different kinds of institutions and through different methods and theories, than the core humanities, part of whose purpose remains to reproduce certain bourgeois sensibilities and cultural capital.

Reading this essay about the academic humanities, you will wonder how any students learn how to write by taking courses in these fields. The answer is that they don’t – in fact, at my university most science students learn their writing in science courses.

In During’s description, the humanities for better or worse are like “a world alongside similar worlds”, a way of seeing (and reading) things that necessarily entails a frame of reference, a perspective – he doesn’t say this, but a theory in the modern sense used in humanistic writing.

Fair enough.

Under this “world apart” definition, what the academic humanities may not be doing is teaching students how to communicate, how to frame arguments, how to be informed citizens or to be self-critical about their construction of knowledge. This is another case of academics thinking that the facts known inside academia are the only ones relevant to a problem.