It’s easy to have an opinion about what field of study ultimately makes the “biggest” contribution to society. Most of us are convinced of the intellectual superiority of our own major. But what if everyone followed our advice? What would happen if every college student became a scientist in search of conclusions, or if every student set out with a humanities degree in search of questions? In either case, there would be neither substantial science nor humanities worth the name.
As far as there’s any firm boundary between the sciences and the humanities, I think we’re better off with both of them. Neither subject would be as powerful as it is today without the influence of the other. Do the humanities need the sciences? Scientifically improved information access, infrastructure, nutrition and medicine have enabled an ever-greater number of humanities thinkers to think longer, to write more and to do both more deeply. (Just consider central heating: No longer are philosophers confined to their armchairs by the fireplace on winter nights.)
But I also propose scientists have, just as importantly, given inspiration to their counterparts who began in armchairs. Science fiction is an obvious example. I don’t think any novelist or historian can avoid marveling at what human minds and hands and eyes have achieved and getting propelled towards new ideas.
Similarly, there’s a flow of support from the humanities to the sciences. Essayists and philosophers have worked hard to question, refine, make eloquent and produce good examples of the languages in which scientists do research, design projects and communicate results. Great scientific ideas probably wouldn’t be as great without the clarity of thought and language on which, from what I’ve seen, most great ideas depend. And then there’s the inspiration, something that I doubt any scientist could do without. I don’t expect a physicist to read a poem and thereby devise a test for the presence of the Higgs boson. But neither do I expect that he or she would become a physicist in the first place without gleaning a love of learning that tracts of poetry and prose can help to inspire.
Each of the competing intellectual domains have something instrumental and something inspirational to offer the other. I’m convinced that neither domain would be very useful or marvelous without the exchange. What evidence do I have? Nothing more than my own experience and a little optimism about human progress. But I hope you’ll agree that optimism makes for good inspiration, if not for great evidence.
Then what is one to do, if convinced that an allegiance to either the sciences or the humanities could do society some good (and, perhaps, that neither allegiance would exclude the other)? First, let’s not imagine that these two fields, let alone any academic subject area, are the only pursuits worth pursuing. In the argument above, I meant only to suggest the value of sciences and the humanities in terms of their worth for each other. That is to say nothing about their worth for other endeavors, the worth of other endeavors for these two, or the worth of any endeavor for human well-being, however you’d like to define it.
So if you have the luxury of choosing what to learn, of choosing something that might help other people and not just yourself and your family, here’s my suggestion: learn about a subject that you’d be willing and eager to teach other people about. Chances are, this subject inspires you, you do good work in it, you communicate about it well and you probably enjoy it, too. Ultimately, I can’t promise that you’ll benefit society in the process, but part of that is up to you.
Jeremy Lent is a junior in Saybrook College.