An Astrophysicist Defends the Humanities


Adam Frank

In a recent piece from National Public Radio, University of Rochester astrophysics professor Adam Frank makes a compelling case for an undergraduate education in the humanities.

Here is a taste:

In spite of being a scientist, I strongly believe an education that fails to place a heavy emphasis on the humanities is a missed opportunity. Without a base in humanities, both the students — and the democratic society these students must enter as informed citizens — are denied a full view of the heritage and critical habits of mind that make civilization worth the effort.

There is, of course, another way to view the question of whether a liberal arts education has value. It can be seen as posing the question as to whether college should be seen as some kind of higher vocational training, instead: a place to go to for a specific certification for a specific job.

Here, too, I would push back strongly.

For those who go to college, the four years spent there are often the sole chance we give ourselves to think deeply and broadly about our place in the world. To turn college into nothing more than job training (emphasizing only those jobs that pay well), represents another missed opportunity for students and the society that needs them.

So, these are my traditional answers to the traditional questions about the value of humanities and arts education vs. science and engineering. From my standpoint as a scholar, I’ll stand by them and defend what they represent to the last breath.

But the world has changed and, I believe, these answers are no longer enough.

It’s not just the high cost of college that alters the equation. It’s also vast changes that have swept through society with the advent of a world run on information (i.e., on data). So, with that in mind, here is my updated — beyond the traditional — response to the value of the humanities in education: The key is balance.

It is no longer enough for students to focus on either science/engineering or the humanities/arts. During the course of their lives, students today can expect to move through multiple career phases requiring a wide range of skills. A kid who wants to write screenplays may find she must learn how to build Web content for a movie-related app. That effort is likely to include getting her hands dirty with the technology of protocols and system architecture. Likewise, a kid who started out in programming may find himself working for a video game company that puts a high value on storytelling. Doing his job well may require him to understand more deeply how Norse mythologies represented the relationship between human and animal realms.

Read the rest here.