Dudley Lynch: The case for the humanities


Published: Sunday, March 10, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 7, 2013 at 11:20 p.m.

You've probably heard the one about how many engineers it takes to change a lightbulb.

Five.

One to hold the bulb and four to turn the ladder.

Stupid joke.

But I keep thinking of it as I reflect on the potential consequences of Gov. Rick Scott's attitude toward teaching the humanities at the University of Florida and other Florida campuses. (Scott: "Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists. I don't think so.")

The governor is a bottom-line kind of guy, both by experience and inclination. He clearly wants the U — all the state's U's — run more like businesses, giving taxpayers more bang for their bucks.

I get that.

And, he's no isolationist.

He knows that Florida needs as many well-trained people as it can produce to handle the numbers and do the math. Otherwise, the university's graduates and attendees may fare badly competing with the grads of the Chinas, Indias and Brazils of the new global marketplace. And the state's ability to incubate jobs may suffer.

I get that.

And I have no trouble understanding why the humanities can be such an instinctive turnoff to our governor and others.

Too often, the people who champion the humanities don't help their own cause very much. They tout well-rounded educations. They praise helping students meditate on ideas. They see value in thinking about the bigger picture. Worthy pursuits, one and all. But, unfortunately, often weak gunpowder in the public debate.

So I get that.

But the one thing I don't get is why neither side seems to fully appreciate why the study of the humanities is so utterly vital—so irreplaceable—for society. Any society.

It is what gets taught in the humanities that helps safeguard a society from disintegrating from the center out. And, if and when rot starts to set in, teaches us how to combat the decay.

How do the humanities do that?

By equipping us with pragmatic brains for dealing with each other and making each other better. That is, by introducing us to the best tools and methods for deciding what is worth experimenting with, competing for, collaborating on and improving and passing on to current and future generations, collectively, as a people.

The humanities operate at the heart and soul of what shows up in all exemplary governments, marketplaces, judiciaries and — yes — educational institutions.

When the influence of what the humanities bring to the table begins to wane, a society closes in on itself and becomes one-dimensional. It forgets that to excel it needs its minds to cross the street constantly between the systematic and the greater human condition and travel back again.

It can be argued (cultural critic Dr. David Brin is one who does, for example) that only four societies have truly excelled at this: Athens, Florence, Venice and the so-called "neo-enlightenment West." America is easily the most brilliant example of the latter. But unless we can encourage powerful new synergies between the numbers and the humanities, the quarter century following World War II may end up having been our golden era, never to return.

And that observation leads me back to that tacky joke I started with.

Scott says he wants UF to be one of the country's top ten public universities. If he really means it, he'll quit arguing over how many engineers it takes to change a lightbulb. And he'll do all he can to invigorate everything that goes into making an exceptional institution of higher learning. That includes top-quality programs in both the humanities and the numbers.

Dudley Lynch is president of Brain Technologies Corp. of Gainesville.

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