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Why Study Humanities? What I Tell Engineering Freshmen

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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What’s the point of the humanities? Of studying philosophy, history, literature and “soft” sciences like psychology and poly sci? The Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, consisting of academic, corporate, political and entertainment big shots, tries to answer this question in a big new report to Congress. The report is intended to counter plunging enrollment in and support for the humanities, which are increasingly viewed as “luxuries that employment-minded students can ill afford,” as The New York Times put it.

Socrates teaching the humanities.

Titled “The Heart of the Matter,” the report states: “As we strive to create a more civil public discourse, a more adaptable and creative workforce, and a more secure nation, the humanities and social sciences are the heart of the matter, the keeper of the republic—a source of national memory and civic vigor, cultural understanding and communication, individual fulfillment and the ideals we hold in common. They are critical to a democratic society and they require our support.”

I find this a bit grandiose, and obscure. I have my own humble defense of the humanities, which I came up with a couple of years ago, when I started teaching a new course required for all freshmen at Stevens Institute of Technology. The syllabus includes Sophocles, Plato, Thucydides, Shakespeare, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Mill, Marx, Nietzsche, William James, Freud, Keynes, Eliot—you know, Greatest Hits of Western Civilization.

I love teaching the class, but I don’t assume that students love taking it. So on the first day of class I ask my wary-looking students, “How many of you would skip this class if it wasn’t required?” After I assure them that they won’t hurt my feelings, almost all raise their hands.

When I ask what the problem is, they say they came to Stevens for engineering, computer science, physics, pre-med, finance, digital music production, etc. They don’t see the point of reading all this old impractical stuff that has nothing to do with their careers. When I ask them to guess why Stevens inflicts this course on them, someone usually says, smirking, To make us well-rounded.

Whenever I get the “well-rounded” response, I want to reply, “Does ‘well-rounded’ mean, like, chubby?” But I don’t want to offend overweight students. Instead I say, “I don’t really know what ‘well-rounded’ means. Does it mean being able chitchat about Shakespeare at cocktail parties? I don’t care about that.” Then I give them my pitch for the course, which goes something like this:

We live in a world increasingly dominated by science. And that’s fine. I became a science writer because I think science is the most exciting, dynamic, consequential part of human culture, and I wanted to be a part of that. Also, I have two college-age kids, and I’d be thrilled if they pursued careers in science, engineering or medicine. I certainly want them to learn as much science and math as they can, because those skills can help you get a great job.

But it is precisely because science is so powerful that we need the humanities now more than ever. In your science, mathematics and engineering classes, you’re given facts, answers, knowledge, truth. Your professors say, “This is how things are.” They give you certainty. The humanities, at least the way I teach them, give you uncertainty, doubt and skepticism.

The humanities are subversive. They undermine the claims of all authorities, whether political, religious or scientific. This skepticism is especially important when it comes to claims about humanity, about what we are, where we came from, and even what we can be and should be. Science has replaced religion as our main source of answers to these questions. Science has told us a lot about ourselves, and we’re learning more every day.

But the humanities remind us that we have an enormous capacity for deluding ourselves. They also tell us that every single human is unique, different than every other human, and each of us keeps changing in unpredictable ways. The societies we live in also keep changing–in part because of science and technology! So in certain important ways, humans resist the kind of explanations that science gives us.

The humanities are more about questions than answers, and we’re going to wrestle with some ridiculously big questions in this class. Like, What is truth anyway? How do we know something is true? Or rather, why do we believe certain things are true and other things aren’t? Also, how do we decide whether something is wrong or right to do, for us personally or for society as a whole?

Also, what is the meaning of life? What is the point of life? Should happiness be our goal? Well, what the hell is happiness? And should happiness be an end in itself or just a side effect of some other more important goal? Like gaining knowledge, or reducing suffering?

Each of you has to find your own answer to these questions. Socrates, one of the philosophers we’re going to read, said wisdom means knowing how little you know. Socrates was a pompous ass, but there is wisdom in what he says about wisdom.

If I do my job, by the end of this course you’ll question all authorities, including me. You’ll question what you’ve been told about the nature of reality, about the purpose of life, about what it mean to be a good person. Because that, for me, is the point of the humanities: they keep us from being trapped by our own desire for certainty.

Postscript: My Stevens colleague Garry Dobbins, a philosopher, likes to give me a hard time, and I him, but I’m always provoked by his take on things, like this response to my post: “As to the Humanities being to teach us a healthy skepticism, we might all agree that this is indeed one of the consequences of such an education; but if this is necessary, as you make it out, because learning science alone we do not learn the importance, or necessity of ‘uncertainty, doubt and skepticism,’ something strange and even perverse has befallen the study of science! Those taking seriously the study of the history of science, for instance, will know that there was a time when science assumed the cultural pre-eminence it still occupies among us precisely because it did not teach dogmas, or as you put it, ‘certainty.’ On the contrary; scientific studies from the early modern period down to the early twentieth century, anyway, were liberal studies. Surely the justification of study of the Humanities, history, literature, philosophy and the rest, is not fundamentally different than the justification for the study of science. There are forces at work in human life, whether material or spiritual, which we seek to master, so far as possible. The language in which we express our knowledge of physical forces obeys somewhat different logical rules to that in which we express our knowledge of economics for example: but this doesn’t mean that the one is less knowledge, or logical, or important, than the other, surely! That you speak of the kind of knowledge to be gained by close study of Shakespeare, Thucydides, or Plato, as ‘impractical’ surely goes to show a misunderstanding as to what is practical in a human life. Unless you can show good reason to believe Socrates mistaken in thinking that self-knowledge is only reliable foundation for a good life.”

I responded: “Garry, you’re right that science if properly taught should incorporate skepticism. But science is becomingly increasingly dogmatic and arrogant in our era, which is why we need the humanities to foster a healthy anti-dogmatism.”

Post-postscript: Hear me yammer further about the humanities (and other topics) with my buddy George Johnson (also a humanities major) on a recent

Painting by 18th century painter Nicholas Guibal, Wikimedia Commons.


John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. NeurosciNY 12:20 pm 06/20/2013

    I agree with your defense of the humanities, but still struggle with how they will market themselves in modernized systems of education. To chancellors, visible money looks the greenest. However, you raise an important point: if sciences are now drawing in young students by the boatload, won’t it be nice if/when they are presented with a widely accepted, yet severely flawed model of how the natural world works, they can stand up for an alternative view? This defiance often requires snubbing powerful authorities of the same system they are hoping to survive and thrive in. Will such a risky challenge occur without a forged resolve of knowing (by studying examples) how many times mankind was wrong before? Incidentally, refining the mold ultimately saves lots of future research funds that was otherwise steered toward wasteful pursuits. This is a more abstract economic concept than a drug target agreed, but humanities have their value. They just need a sexier ad campaign to raise awareness for the much needed skills, concepts and CHARACTER that they provide. What kind of citizen’s will our institutions strive to produce? Hopefully more than a breathing research droid. It is a challenging thing to justify today, but hopefully we will not drop our value for the intangible concept of humanity.

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  2. 2. M Tucker 2:13 pm 06/20/2013

    “The syllabus includes Sophocles, Plato, Thucydides, Shakespeare, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Mill, Marx, Nietzsche, William James, Freud, Keynes, Eliot—you know, Greatest Hits of Western Civilization.”

    That’s a nice list. Of course I haven’t seen your whole syllabus but I hope you include some poets, besides Shakespeare, and I hope you cover some of the big issues important to American history and culture.

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  3. 3. KopernicusKid 3:11 pm 06/20/2013

    This article made my day. Having been raised by the head of a high school foreign language department and a university professor of marine biology, I emerged from childhood with no choice but to appreciate both schools of thoughts, if you will pardon the pun.

    In return, I would like to share this excerpt from a brilliant piece on the Socratic Method by
    Kenneth J. Maxwell…

    “Convictions, when held too tightly, blind us in a way that traps us within our own opinions. Although this protects us from uncomfortable ambiguities and troublesome contradictions, it also makes us comfortable with stagnation and blocks the path to improved understanding. In other words, without the capacity to question ourselves the possibility of real thinking ceases. If people are not able to question their own ideas they cannot be thoughtful at all. When unacknowledged or unquestioned assumptions dominate the mind, thoughtfulness becomes a danger and the human aspiration to improve and grow in understanding becomes a slave to fear. The goal of the Classic Socratic Method is to help people by freeing their desire for understanding from the harmful limitations that come through clinging to the false securities of their current knowing. People who experience the effect, which arises from being a recipient of the first phase of the Socratic Method are freed from the shackles of confidence in their knowing. This affords them the optional freedom of thinking about an issue with a greater quality of thoughtfulness. Reactions to this effect can be diverse. They range from embracing the experience with zeal to seeking to remove oneself from the situation.

    When stripped of their usual surety, a person may become sensitive and anxious. The advantage of the Classic Socratic Method over the more common forms of discussion or debate is that the Socratic questioner may abandon the burdensome pretense of knowing and take the more subordinate and conversationally effective role as a seeker of understanding.”


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  4. 4. wthynes 5:59 pm 06/20/2013

    Of course, he had to make sure he labelled psychology a soft science in the first paragraph. Why do we have to keep seeing this hack?

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  5. 5. neuwirthe 6:44 pm 06/20/2013

    There is something in this article which should not stand unquestioned:
    “In your science, mathematics and engineering classes, you’re given facts, answers, knowledge, truth.”
    This is how these disciplines present their results and accomplishments. But in any good class you also will be told: this is what we know, this is what we don’t know (yet). This is what we can do, this is what we can’t do (yet).
    The general flavor of the article is “humanities are necessary so our students do not become complete nerds”. I think that good science classes also can contribute to “humanistic” education.
    In fact I even dislike the name “humanities” because it somewhat implies that science is inhuman. Some of my colleagues already use the term “Buchwissenschaften” as opposed to “Naturwissenschaften”.
    In German, Humanities are called Geisteswissenschaften, which, literally translated, means “science of the intellect” which also is in fact offensive towards “Naturwissenschaften” = “science of natural phenomena”. Essentially the only tool of “Geisteswissenschaften” are books, therefore the suggested name ;-)

    This does not, by the way, imply that courses like the one describes should me removed from the curricula. The are quite important. But they are not (or should not be) the only source for “humanistic” education of our students.

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  6. 6. syzygy 9:15 pm 06/20/2013

    If you can introduce engineers to the content of your syllabus, then perhaps you have some redeeming value after all?

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  7. 7. syzygy 9:35 am 06/21/2013

    You may want to consider adding The Five Virtues of Confucianism.

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  8. 8. rshoff 2:47 pm 06/21/2013

    Engineers are dangerous people away from the drafting table. They tend not to understand ‘how things work’ at all. They believe they know ‘how things work’ but in the real world, it doesn’t work ‘that’ way. Unless of course they live in under a benevolent dictator who has unlimited resources. But otherwise, keep them out of public, they will only bring grieve to any conversation!

    That could be said about anyone that is in a highly specialized field. The discipline and knowledge has a very narrow focus to their specific task. Not to the real world in which we must live, and compromise.

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  9. 9. syzygy 3:06 pm 06/21/2013


    You have no idea what most engineers do.

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  10. 10. livingstone42 6:29 pm 06/21/2013

    So I think we’re all agreed that scientists and engineers should understand something of the humanities. But I’m more interested in working it the other way… What might be accomplished by a really brilliant visual artist, for example, who had an understanding of quantum physics, and could ‘see’ compound dimensionality and maybe even a Unified Field Theory?

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  11. 11. rshoff 6:43 pm 06/21/2013

    syzygy – Actually, you’re right that my sweeping comment is unfair and ignorant. However, it is true that many people in specialized fields, including the engineers, cannot see beyond their specialty. This silo effect is limiting. Limiting to them, and limiting to those they serve (yes, they serve). Personally I have seen that many people in specialized fields refuse to let anyone else be right about anything. Even when that ‘anything’ does not fall within the purview of their specialty! They are not superior beings, just highly educated, trained, and skilled …in their profession.

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  12. 12. rshoff 6:54 pm 06/21/2013

    Lingstone42 – Good point! Would that be someone like DaVinci? I wonder if synesthesia is a condition that lends itself to those talents? Perhaps people with those talents already exist all around us but are shut out and shut up by those that cling to the traditional analytical approach.

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  13. 13. rshoff 7:01 pm 06/21/2013

    @sygyzy – And of those five virtues, to which do you most adhere?

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  14. 14. Nepenthes 7:13 pm 06/21/2013

    Your defense is reasonably compelling. Unfortunately not one of the one-a-term humanities/social sciences classes I had to take in order to graduate (from a well-known technical school) did any of the things you mention. In reality, all I got out of these classes were some amusing anecdotes, some historical facts, a better knowledge of German (definitely useful!), and some writing practice (but with a much lower quality standard than high school English).

    You are defending your particular class and an imaginary system in which it is representative, not the humanities classes that STEM students are typically required to take.

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  15. 15. Chryses 10:03 am 06/22/2013

    We can learn from the Sciences useful methods of how to describe, and often explain what is “out there”. For those who have the opportunity and inclination, the Humanities can do the same for what is within us.

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  16. 16. rshoff 11:40 am 06/22/2013

    Wchryses, what is the fulcrum point within us that connects the two, and how do we express that?

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  17. 17. Chryses 1:58 pm 06/22/2013

    The fulcrum is objectivity, which in Western Civ the Hellenes were first to use to discriminate between the two. While my opinion will likely find only limited concurrence, two disciplines which focus on the transition to which you refer are psychology and sociology. The the complexity of their subject material, and the severe limits of internal objectivity available to them account for most of their well-deserved scientific softness.

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  18. 18. christianhgross 4:33 am 06/26/2013

    I understand what is being attempted, but I don’t think it is the right approach. As an engineering student I had to take non engineering non technical stuff. I decided to take one course entitled Greek and Roman engineering. It was a historical piece of how the Greeks and Romans evolved their society. I was completely engrossed by it. HOWEVER, as it was a humanities the teacher was not impressed whenever engineering students attended due to the conflicts in thought.

    And therein lies the problem. Humanities is not what we need to be taught. We need to be taught critical, rational thinking skills. On both sides of the trades.

    Your reference to the previous generations is interesting in that if I am not mistaken that was also the time when people attempted to rationalize and critically think. That was the time when people of all races sat down and thought things through and because of their lack of scientific tools they use rational thought. Or at least what they considered rational thought.

    I find the idea of asking the question “what is life” completely nebulous for there is no wrong answer. You can make up anything and still be right.

    In contrast I think the question, “when does society help and support each another” is more compelling. Remember that we are where we are because we are social animals. Just like dogs that work as a pack, humans did as well. Though the question is have we advanced so far that we don’t need it?

    Or how about the question, “is our ability to say yes or no our advantage or downfall?” If I am not mistaken people have said that our ability to distinguish between yes and no makes us intelligent as we have to undergo a complex thought process to decide yes or no. You could almost say it is the basis of our intelligence.

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  19. 19. Cappysay 7:05 pm 06/26/2013

    Improperly-taught humanities are just as dogmatic as improperly-taught sciences. Even your “greatest hits” codified this.

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  20. 20. CurrentOutlook 6:18 am 06/27/2013

    Wouldn’t that depend on how Mr. Horgan taught the course?

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  21. 21. rshoff 1:56 pm 06/27/2013

    @christian: “We need to be taught critical, rational thinking skills.”

    You are absolutely correct in that statement. Specialists need to focus on learning their expertise, and learning it well. We are becoming a society of half-doers, or close is good enough. That’s not the case for engineers.

    “I find the idea of asking the question “what is life” completely nebulous for there is no wrong answer. ”

    This approach runs risks of building silos. Great specialists are only useful in the context of society itself. The ability to think outside of the box requires incorporating ideas and ways of thinking outside of your trained specialty. You hit the nail on the head. There is no wrong answer “what is life”, and that is something an engineering student needs to grasp. Everything is not measurable and quantifiable, yet it is still real.

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  22. 22. james.paul.white 6:42 pm 06/27/2013

    Damon Horowitz, Director of Engineering & In-House Philosopher at Google, gives an excellent talk called “Quit Your Technology Job and Get a Humanities Ph.D.”. It is based on his experience of returning to school to get a PhD in Philosophy at Stanford following years of success in technology businesses built on what he learned getting an MS in CS at MIT.

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  23. 23. geowiz875 1:55 pm 07/1/2013

    Mr John,

    you must be encouraged by the sheer amount of response which your blog inspired. Goodonyer mate!
    I, myself, Masters for geophysics and history, have always felt that my life has been so enriched by having a foot in both science and humanities.

    Most of my money making life was geoscience and I loved doing new things which were not in the ‘textbooks’. But no matter where I worked, (more than 20 countries), I always tried to learn a history, culture and (time allowing) embed myself with a family.

    I receive both Scientific American and the NY Times review of Books in my internet (Would it be an abomination to raise Tim Berners-Lee to full godhood status when he dies? The Hellenic world would say “No”)

    In my retirement, I tutor mathematics but ask my students to google Descartes, Newton, etc and am enormously gratified if they reply that he was a ‘really weird dude’.

    Keep up the good work sir; hopefully you may enrich a few technocrats lives.

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  24. 24. Joe Fluke 7:25 pm 07/2/2013

    Your humanities class would be even more subversive if the scholars on your syllabus were not universally white men. Science is really powerful, but the social constructs that support the ideas that the canon of Western Civilization is white and male are pretty powerful too.

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  25. 25. DanSchultz 12:42 am 07/6/2013

    It is all well and good that engineering students take humanities classes to make them “well rounded”.

    It is a pity that non-science majors are allowed to graduate from prestigious universities with little or no understanding of science or technology. A survey of Harvard graduates revealed that few of them could explain why the weather in summer is warmer than it is in winter. Universities think that science is an esoteric subject that is only needed by those who plan to make a living as a scientist, not something that every well informed citizen needs to know something about.

    The fact is that the average engineer is much more well rounded than any liberal arts major can ever dream of being. Most engineers have at least heard of Plato and Shakespeare, but few humanities graduates know who James Clerk Maxwell was or can briefly explain the work of Issac Newton or Albert Einstein. The second law of thermodynamics is a gem of human knowledge that should be understood and appreciated by every university graduate, regardless of their major.

    The fact that so many people can use a cellphone or computer with not even the slightest understanding of how any of it works is appalling. They must think that these things work by magical spells.

    The big issues of our day, such as climate change, are scientific in their nature, but the majority of our citizens are ill equipped to think for themselves in these matters. All they can do is decide whether or not to trust the experts. This is not a good basis for a democracy to operate on.

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  26. 26. rshoff 8:05 pm 08/3/2013

    @Dan “The fact is that the average engineer is much more well rounded than any liberal arts major can ever dream of being. ”

    If true, perhaps it has to do with the average intelligence level when comparing these two broad groups. It seems that the individuals in the group scoring higher intelligence averages will be motivated and curious enough to discover ancillary subjects on their own. Perhaps that means their knowledge is not completely a result the formal education program in which they are participate, but rather their propensity to explore beyond.

    If true, perhaps being introduced these concepts by people like John Horgan is a key part of that journey.

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  27. 27. rshoff 8:08 pm 08/3/2013

    Corrections! Ugh, If only I could properly type….

    1- Curious enough to ‘explore’…
    2- formal education program in which they participate…

    and any others….

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  28. 28. My Harvard Classics 6:27 pm 10/10/2013

    You can get a crash course in the humanities in 90 days reading the Harvard Classics here

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  29. 29. PforPhil 1:11 pm 11/24/2013

    Here’s what Nick Mount, Professor of English at the University of Toronto, thinks about why the studies of humanities matter

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