Sunday, September 30, 2012

Studying humanities will make the world a better place

The chairman of the United States National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) also believes that nothing bridges the past, present and future more than the study of the humanities.
"Of all the disciplines, the humanities do the most to tap into and expand the imagination. Literature, art, history, religion and philosophy give meaning to concepts of justice and goodness, and shape our sense of beauty," said Mr Leach in a keynote address delivered in Singapore recently.
"They allow us to put on the shoes of others in past ages and different contemporary circumstances. They invite us to ask questions and seek answers."
He spoke at the latest Singapore International Foundation Better World Forum, a series to promote the exchange of insights, perspectives and experiences between global thought leaders and the Singapore community. Titled Cultural Outreach And Citizen Diplomacy, the forum was attended by members of the artistic and diplomatic communities, social entrepreneurs as well as university students.
In a pragmatic world ruled by science and technology, the humanities are often given short shrift. But that, he believes, is a grave mistake.
"Every time there is an advance in science and technology, humanistic questions come into play," he tells The Sunday Times in an interview. It is impossible to talk about cloning and nuclear technology, for example, without discussing attendant ethical and humanistic issues.
A former Republican Congressman appointed by the Obama administration to head the NEH in 2009, Mr Leach views the humanities, in one sense, as having "everything to do with relations, man to man".
"The most meaningful discovery in humanities studies is that everything is related to everything else, although we may not know it at the time," he says. "The challenge is to discover and then correlate discoveries, the most important of which relate to perspective - values, methods of thinking and doing - rather than fact."
History and storytelling help many people connect the dots and bind the human experience. History, he says, can be more controversial than current events.
"There can be clarity about certain historical facts like names and dates, but the whys and wherefores of events can be elusive. But despite that, one thing is clear: The deeper our understanding of the past, the greater our capacity to understand and cope with the present and mould the future," he says.
The same can be said of literature.
He mounted a stout defence of literature in his speech by quoting the works of great poets and writers.
American poet Walt Whitman's greatest dream, he said, was "an internationality of poems and poets binding the lands of the earth closer than all treaties and diplomacy". Russian novelist and essayist Fyodor Dostoevsky said "beauty will save the world" while the Chinese sage Confucius wrote: "When music and courtesy are better understood and appreciated, there will be no war."
Mr Leach believes that a person who understands his country's history, political theory, jurisprudence, art and literature is more likely to understand his country, his place and his national values.
Similarly, a person who has a sense of the world is more likely to understand the thinking of others and apply logic to challenges of the moment.
"How can we contain prejudice and counter forces of hatred if we don't come to know more about each other?" he asks.
These are not casual concerns, but highly important issues in a world filled with tension and strife. It is relevant in the US, embroiled in several wars against terrorism, and it is just as relevant in Singapore where many are grappling with resentment over issues including immigration and foreign talent.
"Singapore is not alone," he says, when asked how Singaporeans can learn to cope with the issue. "America has an analogous tension, Switzerland, Scandinavia, Germany and France too."
It is part of a bigger change sweeping the world.
"The bigger change is not someone from another country coming here. The bigger change is occurring in the world. Change is accelerating and when change accelerates, there is a natural discombobulation.
"That would occur whether there is a single immigrant or a thousand. It implies more and more are living in a greater world and it requires effort."
Learning how to accommodate change is yet another reason why he believes the humanities are important.
Mr Leach - who was teaching public and international affairs at Princeton before his NEH appointment - says the humanities are critical to citizenship, national security, job creation and managing and expanding the store of human knowledge.
Literature, philosophy and history expand the imagination, which he thinks is even more important than knowledge.
Einstein, he says, was not a first-rate mathematician but he became a great physicist because he had such a fantastic imagination. "Einstein once said knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world."
In a highly competitive world, it also makes sense to embrace history, literature, languages and philosophy - subjects which lend perspective and stimulate creative thinking.
"How can individuals compete in their own markets if they don't write, think and communicate well and understand their own culture and its variety of subcultures, or abroad if they don't understand foreign languages, histories and traditions?"
In fact, he believes society would be short-changing itself if it short-changed the humanities.
Asked if the Internet has muddied the waters of the humanities, he replies: "The race is on."
On the one hand, the Internet has the greatest capacity for people to educate themselves in the world. "On the other, you have two types of people - those who will use the Internet to seek the views of people just like themselves, and those who want to see a wider horizon. The more open-minded you are when you look at the Internet, the better."
When he was teaching, he used to tell students who were conservative to find a good liberal blog to read, and vice versa. What is important, he says, is for people to see the big picture.
"The big picture is the right thing to have."
But Mr Leach is not done yet. The humanities, he says, emphasise the fourth R - Reality - after the three basics of Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic.
Reality encompasses concern for the human condition.
And that includes trying to understand other people and their concerns as empathetically and as comprehensively as possible.
When people try to understand each other, conflict will be reduced.
"I'm not saying it won't happen, but it will be reduced."

Background story
Breeding civility
"Studying the humanities helps to breed civility. Civility may encompass manners but is different from manners. Civility is to respect someone else, and part of that is to understand their background and their world. A world without civility is a world guaranteed to be filled with tension."
MR LEACH, on the importance of the humanities

Jim Leach, 70, was picked by United States President Barack Obama to head the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in 2009.
Set up in 1965, the NEH is the largest funder of humanities programmes in the US and provides grants to cultural institutions such as museums, archives, libraries and universities in the US.
Before this appointment, Mr Leach was a professor at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University and Interim Director of the Institute of Politics and Lecturer at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Between 1977 and 2007, he was a Republican member of the US House of Representatives. He has also served on the board of several public companies and non-profit organisations, including the Century Foundation and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The former state wrestling champion has a bachelor's in political science from Princeton University and a master's in Soviet politics from Johns Hopkins University in the US.
He is married to an art historian and they have two grown-up children.