The TV parlor of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” is alive and well at Yale University. I was shocked to discover the new “Digital Humanities Lab” in Sterling two weeks ago, with its synchronous screens flashing inordinately in the newly dedicated space for exploring technology in the Humanities. What does this new space say about the state of the Humanities at Yale? With Yale’s overeager attachment to new technology and STEM initiatives over the Humanities, it’s unclear that the university has a coherent answer. As a leader in education, Yale must articulate and defend the role of traditional liberal arts alongside their modern facelift.
The Digital Humanities, as described to me by Catherine DeRose, the manager of the DHL, allows for great breadth in research, including high powered computing that aggregates text to show motifs, 3D modeling that can illustrate inaccessible archives, or imaging software that analyzes thousands of photographs. DeRose stressed, however, that the DHL should not replace traditional Humanities methods such as close-reading, but supplement them.
Yale’s problem is therefore not that it invested in the DHL, but that it has forgotten to defend the core elements of a liberal arts education at the same time. The key difference between Yale’s current approach to education and the traditional liberal arts is between knowledge and understanding. The DHL is great at enhancing knowledge — there are many new facts that we can rapidly ascertain through digital tools. But understanding is instead a shared project of humankind that constantly seeks to get a grip on its underlying connections: It shouldn’t require any supplements.
That said, defenses of traditional humanities are often fetishizing and exclusionary. Allan Bloom’s idea that the “Great Books” teach lessons that are good in themselves or Russell Kirk’s description of a liberal education as one that should “develop the individual human being” too often echo Platonic calls for an education of the privileged few. To these philosophers, and many of their modern day conservative followers, the liberal arts offer elite students secret keys to unlock a world beyond what a normal person might know.
But the notion that basic human inquiry is a task held in reserve is preposterous. Understanding is found in a common room with your suitemates, with your family at the dinner table or with a stranger in a public park. It’s found when you look into someone’s eyes and express a deeply held conviction with complete honesty — and then listen to their response. It’s as complicated as a meaningful conversation or a committed relationship; and it’s slow because it will never be finished.
Academic institutions, therefore, must play the crucial role in society of always grounding knowledge in human understanding. For Yale to promote the liberal arts means to defend focused and perceptive close readings of texts. The liberal arts, in both humanities and the sciences, should ask students to rest methodically in deeper questions about life and love, about existence, about the fragility of experience. They require a mindset that reveals the logic of language and the intricacies of meaning, expands the subtleties present in the human condition and tells the world to move more slowly.
But that mindset is so clearly in short supply at Yale today. A walk through any reading room on campus reveals that just five percent of students have only a book out. Another mere ten percent study with a combination of books and a laptop. More frightening, however, is that Yale, by promoting this detached form of learning, is setting a bad example for the country. Recently, the New York Times described a new “digital divide” in public education. The dogma of the last two decades, one that I lived under in twelve years of public schooling, prioritized technology as the great equalizer between the rich and the poor. Wealthy students were more privileged, the logic went, because of their greater access to knowledge through technology. Now, however, the reverse is true: Silicon Valley tech executives send their kids to private schools where screens are banned and physical toys and human interactions are promoted, while lower income students miss out on real schooling, replaced instead by mandatory chromebooks, ipads, smart boards or sometimes even digital-only preschools. For Yale to follow along and support a trend in education that has proven to worsen students’ lives reflects an utter failure in understanding our own purpose as a college.
Eight years ago, if a student turned left at the front entrance of Sterling they would be greeted by physical papers from countries all over the world in what was then known as the Newspaper Reading Room. In a small way, they could feel between their fingers what it’s like to wake up everywhere on the planet. Now I guess we’re resigned to let life slip through our grasp as we settle down with a digital PDF of Fahrenheit 451 because the library, in a twist of irony, doesn’t have enough physical copies on the shelf.
Leland Stange is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at email@example.com .