[image at left sourced from www.scientificamerican.com]
In a recent article in Newsweek titled “Half a Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste” Alan Brinkley, a Columbia University history professor frames the debate. In the early 20th century, an era of rapid industrialization and immigration, science and technology seemed to be the solution to many of the world’s problems. Many thought science could even reform politics, government and business.
Then, a depression and two world wars rocked the confidence of many as to whether science alone could create a prosperous and civilized world. After World War II, many in academia turned to the study of humanities. They proselytized across the world, promoting literature, philosophy, the humanities and the arts.
We’ve wrestled as a nation with the debate ever since. Do we focus on science, technology, engineering and math (the so-called STEM disciplines), or are we better off focusing on humanistic values as a source to solving the world’s ills? As Brinkley points out “… Science and technology aspire to clean, clear answers to problems… The humanities address ambiguity and doubt, essential underpinnings in a complex and diverse society and a turbulent world.”
Our society continues, and always will, to benefit from the extraordinary successes of science. But it likewise benefits unimaginably from the remarkable words and works that have created and defined our culture and values. As Brinkley concludes, “We have always needed, and we still need, both.”
As a long-ago Poetry major (yes, it’s true) turned tech entrepreneur, I am of course inclined to concur. The disciplines of science and tech are, I think, often best appreciated and managed by those with a generalist’s – and humanist’s – view of the world. The ironies abound.