oh, the humanities – part three


In the first of this set we looked at the humanities as a corner of the curriculum that makes meaning, and argued that it’s in for hard times – not because it attracts few majors, which is a constant worry, but for new reasons.

The second post looked at what some of those are: developments like machine learning and tools to offload our cognitive, biological, and physical processes, undermining the notion of Essentially Human.

nikesole-7Our interface with the world – the frontier between what’s human and what isn’t – has become strikingly porous. What’s left after the clever applications of prosthetics, 3-D printed organs, and machine learning? In effect, what remains is deciding what to do with all of it. But recent developments in neuroscience call free will itself into question, making that an unreliable peg on which to hang our existential hat.

At that point, the circular reasoning that has sustained us since the Renaissance – that humans matter because we’re human – will have run out of gas. And I’m not talking about circa George Jetson; this day is essentially here.

As I cast about for a new and improved raison d’etre, I find a cause for optimism in a recent book on macroeconomics, and a day a couple of months ago when I went to prison. I’ll start with the book.

rise-and-fall-of-american-growthLast Christmas I got Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth, which elaborates on his argument that the recent stagnation in real wage growth is here to stay. He says this is because that spurt in our productivity and standard of living was the real anomaly, an unusual period from 1870 to 1970 where some one-time inventions like the phone, electricity, and the internal combustion engine all converged to give us a boost. As he says, municipal water and sewage is something you invent only once.

It’s an enormous book but very good, and if you’re reading me this far then you may also like it; Gordon is a fellow fan of the long view. (I took his macroeconomics course as a sophomore at Northwestern, and liked him then too.) Yet his premise is valuable mostly for orienting a fascinating and otherwise unwieldy account of recent history. As a main argument it’s unconvincing in two directions.

First, before the time of his book were some other one-off inventions, like the loom, the steam engine, the telegraph, and for that matter fire and the wheel. They probably had the same long-term and irreversible impacts, whether or not they register in traditional GDP. And coming out the other end, the time from 1970 to now, it seems any tapering of growth will last only until the next game changer.

If we can’t see it yet, we should admit that such is the nature of every paradigm shift. That’s why they shift paradigms. For example, an observer in 1815 could think sure, the steam engine might make communication faster than you get from riding a horse, but that speed was probably approaching its limit – not anticipating that the telegraph was about to take that limit up to the speed of light.

the stackIn reading Gordon’s book, I thought of our possible next paradigm shifts in a couple of ways. One, the same profound disruption wrought by the national electric grid could lie ahead of us with networked computing and artificial intelligence, especially as thinking and culture cross national boundaries. (See The Stack for a mind-boggling account from a computer scientist of how IT could usher in the kind of post-state world that’s been imagined for decades by Jürgen Habermas.)

Also in this tech-frontier category: the imminent likelihood we’ll find life on other planets, or inside moons of our own solar system, could give us a tech-driven growth spurt from flavors of biomimicry we haven’t yet imagined.

And then there’s the whole other category of untapped growth, equity. An awful lot of the world’s eight billion people have yet to benefit much from the inventions of 1870 to 1970. If the national economic engine isn’t revving like it did, then that’s hardly because we’ve saturated global demand.


While fretting about what the humanities will do in a post-human-centric world, I thought of both of my reservations about Gordon’s book. On the technological paradigm side, getting to the summit of human cognition and free will – and maybe surrendering our presumptive monopoly on both – may just bring the next hill into sight. We’ve seen this before, for example in theoretical physics.

In other words, it’s possible that unraveling the human capacities we understand so far will reveal other mysteries we didn’t know were there.


And then we get to the equity question, and the graduation ceremony I attended at the California Institute for Women. The CIW is a full-on prison, and going for a visit means breaching multiple heavy duty doors and razor wire, and forfeiting a civil liberty or two.

Once inside, you meet people who’ve studied and found salvation in, of all things, the humanities.


This is not a minimum-security Club Fed for embezzlers. These are some violent people doing, as one told me, “serious time.” Some of them are famous. Some of those in a 30-year stretch enrolled in a humanities graduate program offered by CSU Dominguez Hills, my employer, as a traditional postal correspondence course – important in a setting without internet access, and the last program of its kind.

Anitra Clark and Erica Hitchcock, Inmate Peer Educators, California Institute for Women

It made sense to me that a particularly popular genre is magic realism, but there are plenty of others. I have a stack of written testimonials from our graduates, describing not the escapism but the dignity that attends study in the humanities.


And of course, beyond driving distance from my campus are the billions as yet untouched by Gordon’s catalog of miracles from the 19th and 20th centuries. For them – the vast majority of present-day humans, who live in developing and not-so-developing corners of the world – questions of machine-aided cognition, prosthetics and 3D printing, and dubious free will are mostly moot. We may sweat such things in the ivory towers, but they’re just less pressing down in the dungeons, both at home and abroad.

By my count that makes Cause for Optimism #1: in the relatively short term of decades, the humanities will remain vital for the vast majority of human beings who don’t have it all. Over that time period, the handful who do can work on how else to answer Why.

And so help me, even for that rarefied group, the tip of the epistemological spear, I think the disciplines we’ve been grouping into the humanities are in for some of their best days yet. We will replace the circular reasoning at the heart of today’s humanistic boosters with a much better, sounder line of reasoning.

I’ll call that Cause for Optimism #2, and save it for the fourth and last piece of the set, posted later.


Image credits: airship.net, Kenny Orthopedics, bankingtech.com, CDCR Today, maeryan.com, Just Detention International, The Girl Who Navigates the World in a Dream of Her Own Making by Paul Bond, BBC World Service


3 thoughts on “oh, the humanities – part three

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