Another excerpt from the commencement address recently given to Brandeis University by Leon Wieseltier, long-time literary editor at The New Republic:
Our glittering age of technologism is also a glittering age of scientism. Scientism is not the same thing as science. Science is a blessing, but scientism is a curse. Science, I mean what practicing scientists actually do, is acutely and admirably aware of its limits, and humbly admits to the provisional character of its conclusions; but scientism is dogmatic, and peddles certainties. It is always at the ready with the solution to every problem, because it believes that the solution to every problem is a scientific one, and so it gives scientific answers to non-scientific questions. But even the question of the place of science in human existence is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical, which is to say, a humanistic [one].
Owing to its preference for totalistic explanation, scientism transforms science into an ideology, which is of course a betrayal of the experimental and empirical spirit. There is no perplexity of human emotion or human behavior that these days is not accounted for genetically or in the cocksure terms of evolutionary biology. It is true that the selfish gene has lately been replaced by the altruistic gene, which is lovelier, but it is still the gene that tyrannically rules. Liberal scientism should be no more philosophically attractive to us than conservative scientism, insofar as it, too, arrogantly reduces all the realms that we inhabit to a single realm, and tempts us into the belief that the epistemological eschaton has finally arrived, and at last we know what we need to know to manipulate human affairs wisely. This belief is invariably false and occasionally disastrous. We are becoming ignorant of ignorance.
So there is no task more urgent in American intellectual life at this hour than to offer some resistance to the twin imperialisms of science and technology, and to recover the old distinction — once bitterly contested, then generally accepted, now almost completely forgotten – between the study of nature and the study of man…. You who have elected to devote yourselves to the study of literature and languages and art and music and philosophy and religion and history — you are the stewards of that quality. You are the resistance. You have had the effrontery to choose interpretation over calculation, and to recognize that calculation cannot provide an accurate picture, or a profound picture, or a whole picture, of self-interpreting beings such as ourselves; and I commend you for it…. [You] are the counterculture. Perhaps culture is now the counterculture.
So keep your heads. Do not waver. Be very proud. Use the new technologies for the old purposes. Do not be rattled by numbers, which will never be the springs of wisdom. In upholding the humanities, you uphold the honor of a civilization that was founded upon the quest for the true and the good and the beautiful. For as long as we are thinking and feeling creatures, creatures who love and imagine and suffer and die, the humanities will never be dispensable. From this day forward, then, act as if you are indispensable to your society, because – whether it knows it or not – you are.
I’m not terribly familiar with Leon Wieseltier’s writing – he being the literary editor of the New Republic. But I just came across a commencement address he recently delivered at Brandeis that is about as rousingly superb a defence of the humanities as I’ve ever seen.
An excerpt (and one more in the next post):
For decades now in America we have been witnessing a steady and sickening denigration of humanistic understanding and humanistic method. We live in a society inebriated by technology, and happily, even giddily governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency, and convenience….
The machines to which we have become enslaved, all of them quite astonishing, represent the greatest assault on human attention ever devised: they are engines of mental and spiritual dispersal, which make us wider only by making us less deep. There are thinkers, reputable ones if you can believe it, who proclaim that the exponential growth in computational ability will soon take us beyond the finitude of our bodies and our minds so that, as one of them puts it, there will no longer be any difference between human and machine. La Mettrie lives in Silicon Valley. This, of course, is not an apotheosis of the human but an abolition of the human; but Google is very excited by it.
In the digital universe, knowledge is reduced to the status of information. Who will any longer remember that knowledge is to information as art is to kitsch-–that information is the most inferior kind of knowledge, because it is the most external? A great Jewish thinker of the early Middle Ages wondered why God, if He wanted us to know the truth about everything, did not simply tell us the truth about everything. His wise answer was that if we were merely told what we need to know, we would not, strictly speaking, know it. Knowledge can be acquired only over time and only by method. And the devices that we carry like addicts in our hands are disfiguring our mental lives also in other ways: for example, they generate a hitherto unimaginable number of numbers, numbers about everything under the sun, and so they are transforming us into a culture of data, into a cult of data, in which no human activity and no human expression is immune to quantification, in which happiness is a fit subject for economists, in which the ordeals of the human heart are inappropriately translated into mathematical expressions, leaving us with new illusions of clarity and new illusions of control.
A story in The Chronicle of Higher Education almost seems like some kind of Onion parody to me, but it’s not.
CourseSmart, a company which sells digital textbooks, has just developed a means to “track students’ behavior: how much time they spend reading, how many pages they view, and how many notes and highlights they make. That data will get crunched into an engagement score for each student.” Several universities are running pilots of this system next year.
“The idea is that faculty members can reach out to students showing low engagement, says Sean Devine, chief executive of CourseSmart. And colleges can evaluate the return they are getting on investments in digital materials.”
Seriously? It used to be that things like, I don’t know, let’s call them “class participation” and “quizzes,” “papers” and “office hours,” stuff like that, were considered reasonable means for determining where a student might be having difficulty with a class…
I have trouble seeing how the amount of time (supposedly) reading and number of pages (supposedly) viewed could accurately assess such a thing. Some students read more quickly than others because they concentrate better; others might sit with a page open for half an hour because they’re actually watching a movie and only occasionally glancing at the text. Some skim through every page but without comprehension; others have greater background on the subject and are able to put the material into context in a more efficient way than the norm.
As for the number of “notes and highlights” a student makes: ?! Some people don’t make any in books, preferring the taking of notes by hand as a way to absorb and think through material. On the other hand, some students highlight half the lines on a given page in yellow and it doesn’t seem to help.
In the pilot programs, students will be allowed to opt out, and there’s nothing wrong with trying something new of course. I just can’t see this idea going anywhere. Seems like it’s moving away from where we need to be, which has to do with direct personal engagement – not “crunching data into an engagement score.”