“So, what are you guys reading now?” he asks me, as he sips his coffee.
“The Sicilian Expedition in Thucydides’s ‘History of the Peloponnesian War.’ We’re discussing why it failed,” I reply patiently. Something heats up inside of me; I already know what’s coming next.
“Tell me then,” he says while hurriedly packing his things. “Why did it fail?”
What are you supposed to do when people ask an unanswerable question and wait for the answer so expectedly? He doesn’t even have the slightest idea that he’s asking me to summarize centuries-old scholarly work in a few sentences.
So I shrug my shoulders and decline to say anything. As he looks at me with suspicious eyes, I slowly register that I’ve been misunderstood, ironically while trying to inhibit misunderstandings. I guess I’m destined to share the same fate as the humanities.
The demise of the humanities began with Victorian rhetoric of “rational” thinking. As European doctors praised scientific thinking and determined what “rationality” was, the humanities — essential topics of human condition embodied in history or literature — became trivizalied. Rather than a topic of serious study, the humanities has been relegated as a subject for coffee conversations. Moreover, people give preformative attention to the humanities to appear “elegant” and “cultured.” This boy, for example, expects a daily dose of culture as a side dish with his tea.
What does it mean to be cultured? Michel Foucault defines an episteme as a set of unconscious rules that govern all serious discourse in a certain society and time period. Episteme determines what does and what does not get taken seriously by that community. Today, our episteme has torn apart the definitions of being “educated” and “cultured.” Being educated means developing a rational way of thinking, while being cultured means understanding the human condition.
The rational thinking of the Victorian era is embodied today in our culture: “Reason” and “logical thinking” promise the capability of understanding everything and ignore past attempts to do so, such as religion. Education now revolves around STEM subjects, which receive respect and attention, while the humanities have become a scapegoat.
An aspect of this STEM shift is limited opportunities for research projects in humanities and social sciences. Humanities receive far lower funding than STEM projects, and not merely because of budgets. And places of higher education like Yale aren’t immune to this shift. When I was applying to Yale, there was only a form for STEM research projects to be submitted. I had to send an email to the admissions office asking how to include my quantitative research on emotional labor of white-collar workers.
We’ve eagerly opened our arms to the confidence-conquering phrase of “the scientific research done by X shows that Y.” Science is used to establish credibility, whether in advertisements or political discourse — it’s become a buzzword. But we should pause for a few seconds to consider the things we give importance to, or — thanks to our unconscious epistemes — take for granted. Is something scientific really more “true”?
If it’s all for the sake of understanding the world around us better, then STEM and culture are inherently intertwined. The former is broadening human perception and knowledge; The latter is the fundamental quest for the human condition. If we reject the idea that the two are polarized, we celebrate their connection and take an inquisitive glance at our education system to redefine education and culture.
Do we really aim at obtaining knowledge or establishing a hierarchy between the disciplines? The answer to this could be given by regarding myths. Nowadays, one of the first connotations of a myth is that it’s a gossipy crumble of knowledge. Yet, when one observes how all knowledge was transformed from an objective truth to a historical myth through centuries, one cannot help but wonder why it won’t be the case for our so-called rational science today. Maybe it’s finally time to honor attempts to gain knowledge rather than the knowledge itself. Knowledge, after all, will always be prone to decay. As Aristotle (the notorious Philosopher) said: “Whence even the lover of myth is in a sense a lover of wisdom, for myth is composed of wonders.”
GAMZE KAZAKOGLU is a first year in Benjamin Franklin college. Contact her at email@example.com.