Monday, April 30, 2012

Lack of Rigor in the Humanities

Instapundit responds to criticism of his recent New York Post article criticizing the lack of rigor in the humanities, compared to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math).  He acknowledges that this is not intrinsic to the humanities:
But the problem with the humanities isn’t an inherent one — you could even teach a stimulating and intellectually rich course on the Occupy Movement — but has to do with execution, and here’s where the comparison with STEM comes in. Very few people complete a math or engineering major without learning a lot of math and engineering, but it’s entirely possible to major in the humanities and never learn to read, write, or reason with any rigor. The problem isn’t inherent to the subject matter, it’s a symptom of professorial self-indulgence and laziness, together with the lack of external scrutiny, a problem that is much, much worse in humanities than in STEM.
The problem isn't just laziness.  I start my U.S. History 1 lecture about the Constitution with the equation 
on the board, as a starting point to understanding the Enlightenment view of law, government, and human nature--a fundamental belief in absolute truths.  I am troubled that I have yet to have a college student admit to knowing what that equation means.  

I start out my Western Civilization class by pointing to the Periodic Table of the Elements in the lecture hall, and explain that this is one of the crowning achievements of the Western heritage of reason: finding order and logic in what would otherwise be just a jumble of elements.  That order and logic led to a progressively more sophisticated understanding of what atoms did: valence; electron shells; electron clouds; the manner in which electrons shells fill, producing transition metals and then lanthanides and actinides.

Think about it for a while: if you start admitting the concept of absolute truths in the sciences, there is grave danger that it will drift over into other areas, and before you know it, 2+2 might actually have a correct answer, not a Politically Correct answer.  Unfortunately, the humanities has been taken over by those who would prefer no absolutes, and rigor in thinking implies that there might be some absolute truths.

From an essay by George Orwell about the Spanish Civil War:
A British and a German historian would disagree deeply on many things, even on fundamentals, but there would still be that body of, as it were, neutral fact on which neither would seriously challenge the other. It is just this common basis of agreement, with its implication that human beings are all one species of animal, that totalitarianism destroys. Nazi theory indeed specifically denies that such a thing as ‘the truth’ exists. There is, for instance, no such thing as ‘Science’. There is only ‘German Science’, ‘Jewish Science’, etc. The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, ‘It never happened’ — well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five — well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs — and after our experiences of the last few years that is not a frivolous statement.
This is one the great concerns that I have about the humanities today--the manner in which deconstructionism and post-modernism have largely accepted what used to be considered peculiarly "Nazi theory," but is now the property of progressives: that there are no absolute truths.


  1. I've been following a blog called "100 Reasons NOT to Go To Graduate School", and it has given me a dim view of humanities research. Although many of those points apply equally well to STEM disciplines as well, it has only reinforced my dim view of the STEM academia.

    And I say this, as someone who has a PhD in mathematics.

    This isn't to say that literature is valuable--I certainly will want to expose myself, and my children, to a wide variety of literature--it's just that, I generally don't trust what academics have to say about literature.

    Sadly, the same is true of history as well. Communists and their ilk have done a lot to really mess up academia, haven't they?

  2. Even communists used to believe in absolute truths. See this description of the Sokal hoax:

  3. I am troubled that I have yet to have a college student admit to knowing what that equation means.

    That is troubling.

    I mean, I learned that one in high school physics...

    Of course, when I was in high school they still taught you things (and not so long ago, as I graduated in 1991).