This afternoon, Leon Botstein, president of Bard College and music director of the American Symphony Orchestra, will deliver the Norma Lytton Lecture at the Yale Center for British Art titled “Beyond Fashion and Fear: The Future of the Humanities and the Arts in the University.” Botstein spoke with the News about points of intersection between humanities and STEM fields as well as common criticisms leveled against the humanities in the American education system.

Q

What is the nature of the talk you will be giving at the YCBA? What sorts of topics are you looking to address?

A

Basically what I’m trying to do is to avoid what I think are all the clichés of the defense of the humanities — which are now so commonplace — and try to focus on questions such as: If we really believed that the humanities were vital, how would we organize them? How would we make them a part of the undergraduate experience? What are the purpose and the future of research in the humanities, and what does that have to do with the relationship of the visual arts [and] the performing arts to the humanities? And, finally, what’s the relationship of science to the humanities? Most of the discussion now is about “impracticality,” about “uselessness,” and what I’m trying to do is to address that argument by trying to rethink what we’re doing. “Only 7 percent of American undergrads major in the humanities” — you’ll see statistics like these quoted in articles and so forth – my question would be, is that an important statistic? What would be the consequence of the answer being much larger? Most of what you read, what people say, is a form of preaching – “this is so important, this is so essential, it makes you a critical thinker” – some kind of high-minded language about this, and I’m not sure that’s the way to address the question. We need to think about what we’re doing. If you had to start from scratch, how would you structure and organize the place of the humanities in the university in the world we’re living in today? It turns out, there are a lot better answers than the ones we’ve come up with.

Q

The description of the talk says you’ll be discussing, among other concepts, the “digital humanities.” What exactly are the “digital humanities” and, perhaps more broadly, what do you see as the role of technology in the so-called “future of the humanities”?

A

The phrase refers to the use of digital means — computation — to do various kinds of things using technology, ranging from mapping to visualization … so you can take visual material and other inputs and, as you do with Google Maps take a three-dimensional tour of an art historical monument; a virtual tour of the Chartres cathedral, for example. Or, in music, you can now write a piece of music using a computer and have it realized virtually, make a virtual acoustic-sounding version of it; things previous generations were unable to do. There’s also the possibility of generating your own programs; creating your own virtual reconstruction of an archaeological site, for example. My question is: What’s the utility of that? Does the technology change what we do fundamentally? In other words, there is a tendency of many people to be utopian in a technological way, and there are people who are resistant to it. I’m relatively neutral about it — I don’t think there’s a technological determinism, I find it by and large pretty helpful, but not central to the debate. 

Q

Given the new applications of certain kinds of digital or computational technologies in humanities research and scholarship, how do you view the relationship between STEM fields and the humanities?

A

My position is that the STEM fields cannot exist without the humanities, and that the humanities cannot exist without the STEM fields. The separation is purely bureaucratic; it’s purely a structural separation having to do with the way it’s “easier” to organize things within a university. My view is that anybody who is interested in the humanities is at his or her peril to not think about the fundamental role of science, technology, engineering and the character of science, and vice versa; there’s no serious scientist in the world that isn’t confronted with — that doesn’t deal with — the non-“purely scientific” or nontechnical motivations or consequences of their work. The separation of the two is nonsensical.

Q

What are the current criticisms leveled against the humanities, both from those working within the fields and from those outside of them?

A

The first criticism is that they appear, from some public point of view, to have no purpose. They don’t lead to employment; they’re not practical in that respect. The second criticism is that in the way the humanities are now construed in the academic community, they seem to be somehow disconnected with the real conduct of life and the character of the culture of the world that surrounds us. There’s a critique of the way they’ve been professionalized — of what it means to be a professional historian, art historian, professor of English, philosopher. So there’s some necessity to try to preserve and continue the tradition of scholarship and of inquiry against these attacks, which may be not on what we do but on the way we do it, and on the way it’s organized. So it’s not against the study of literature, it’s against the way in which the study of literature seems to go on. It’s ironic that this criticism exists if you consider how poor our secondary school system is and how poor educational preparation and pre-college preparation is; when in fact we really haven’t done the job in this nation, by any stretch of the imagination, to provide young people growing up with a serious fundamental education prior to university.

Q

How do your roles as president of Bard College and as music director of the American Symphony Orchestra inform your views on the subject?

A

By running an institution that has a largely undergraduate body — we have graduate programs, but they’re very, very small — the bulk of what we do is undergraduate. I come from the background of trying to figure out how to connect these topics with a broader public. As a performer, as a musician, with an interest in the history of music, there’s the question of how do you connect [that interest] and the wealth of historical material in music to a general public or to undergraduates. The relationship of history and performance and the public is one issue, and then what ought to be part of the education for people coming for an undergraduate liberal arts education is another. So how do you organize a curriculum? Do you use the “Brown model,” where students choose from a large array or possibilities, or do you go the route of Columbia or [the University of] Chicago that tries to institute shared curricular experiences for all students? My vantage point is from developing strong views about how to solve [this issue], about how to make this work: is there a middle ground? What is the right way, if there were to be a right way? I’m not sure there’s one answer to these questions.