Even Generals and Senators Stumble into Passion

In the weeks since Cosmos returned to our television sets, I have run across a variation of the following question from frustrated humanities professors. I thought I'd share it with you now.

Where is the Neil DeGrasse Tyson for the liberal arts?

Cosmos is a hit, again. Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a pop science star. Thanks to him, kids dream about expanding human knowledge of the phenomenal universe. Now: Where's a liberal arts rockstar to make people care about human culture that much?

And later in the same piece at Gawker on the need for such a spokesperson:

The humanities breed curiosity. A certain epistemological humility. And as a result, empathy. Language matters. Stories matter. Art matters. History matters.

Because it offers us an unfiltered and accurate take on reality, science (and its Cosmos cover man, seemingly) offers us reassurance in the face of the unimaginable. As such, science's epistemological privilege is secure, even when the work is incomplete. Standards of repeatability and falsifiability that apply now will apply in the future.

The inherited mysteries of the human race, on the other hand, admit no such resolution. For reasons that are now and may forever be immune to scientific method, each of us enjoys a first-person, self-referential view of the world. One of the many consequences of this state of affairs is that faced with the unimaginable, the mind can only point and suggest a metaphor.

Something like that happened there.

The good news is that we're all working from inside the same flawed chemistry. With such a low anthropology, we're all spokespersons. Read the last two sentences in this otherwise stirring passage from a The New Republic piece and see if you don't agree.

The humanities are thriving, but not in the academy. Homo sapiens has always hungered for story and song. We are narrative and rhythmical creatures. Music and rhythmical language awaken our intelligence, as has been observed since Aristotle. We construe our meanings through plot: Who dunnit? Why? What happened next? And we sift our meanings—often the meanings we can hardly articulate abstractly—through song, poetry, images. Why else would we be glued to our screens, large and small, following the adventures of endless fictional characters, whether in video games or films, and why else would we mosey through the streets with digitized music and delirious rhymes flooding through our earphones? We hunger to make sense of our experience, we hunger to understand right and wrong, we hunger to name and plumb our feelings, whose intensities often blindside and bewilder us. Even generals and senators stumble into passion. We have not stopped being human, so we still need 'the humanities.'”

Please remember, IdeaFestival 2014 Festival Passes are on sale now through April 27 at the lowest price they'll be all year. I hope to see you in October!

Stay curious.


Cropped Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by Sarah Elliott