I breathed a sigh of relief when I completed my final exams in school. Not because I wanted to get out of school, but simply because I would never have to study math or science again: the subjects that were my nemesis. Choosing Humanities in college, I flourished. I enjoyed studying, going to the Library (this was before the Internet and Google!) and poring over voluminous books to complete my assignments on Shakespearean drama or life in Victorian England. I saw history repeat itself when my daughter struggled through math and science in school, heaving a sigh of relief as she opted for Humanities in college, despite the ‘arts’ being seen as somehow inferior to the ‘sciences.’
When did this happen I wonder? When did the study of humanities – arts, literature, history – shift from being something actively pursued by those who valued education to becoming a lesser-choice? Could the increasing focus on sciences be linked to economics and consumption? Whatever the reason, I mourn the fact that parents, academicians, educators and society as a whole, seem to be increasingly focused on the sciences while giving short shrift to humanities.
Way back in 1959, C.P.Snow, the eminent British scientist and novelist, delivered an influential lecture in The Senate House, Cambridge, where he pointed out that “the intellectual life of the whole of western society” was split into two cultures, namely the sciences and the humanities. He believed this schism was becoming a hindrance to understanding and solving world problems. He built a case for practitioners in both areas of intellectual activity to build bridges so that society as a whole can benefit.
While there is still a long way to go to realize Snow’s vision, it is encouraging to see pockets of collaboration and cross-disciplinary work emerging in many institutions in the West. For instance, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), one of the largest funders of humanities programs in the United States, awarded a Grant to ACTC’S Liberal Arts Institute for its three-year project, “Bridging the Gap between Humanities and Sciences.”
The Mellon Foundation’s John E.Sawyer Seminars have, since 1994, enabled research on complex contemporary developments that demand cross-disciplinary collaboration. A demonstration of how the Sawyer Seminars bridge the gap between the humanities and social sciences was evident in “Making the Mississippi: Formulating New Water Narratives” a three-day symposium, organized in April 2015 at the University of Minnesota. The symposium – bringing together artists, scholars, historians, and filmmakers with environmental scientists and experts from the National Parks Service – sought to change the romantic view of the river which has been ravaged by decades of sewage and agricultural run-off. The wide ranging discussions from clean water initiatives and environmental law to revisiting the history of Mississippi in the visual arts, not only provided valuable insights but saw the lines between disciplines blurring. Snow would surely have approved!
As more and more institutions and Universities realize the urgent need to bridge the self-imposed gap between Humanities and Sciences, we can look forward to greater collaboration amongst different disciplines. The result will be transformational. And maybe, just maybe, we can help create the right environment for another Leonardo da Vinci or Michael Angelo – the Renaissance men – who could so easily and effortlessly straddle the two worlds of Humanities and Sciences.