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Brian Judge '11: Oration on the dignity of the humanities

A caution to us future leaders of America: the recent financial meltdown and resulting misery was caused by very smart people who were very bad at thinking about what they were doing. It takes a mathematical genius to come up with the convoluted equations for pricing derivatives and mortgage-backed securities. It doesn't take a genius to see how the thoughtless use of these equations created the current economic mess.

This is because physics doesn't tell you how to use physics, chemistry doesn't tell you how to use chemistry and economics doesn't tell you how to use economics. So how do we learn how to use this knowledge justify?

In classrooms at Brown, the words "right" and "wrong" take on very different meanings depending on whether you are in a science class or a humanities class. For mathematics and the hard sciences, right and wrong refer to correctness. Something is right if it is true. Something is wrong if it is false. There is no moral content to the "rightness" of math or science.

The sciences try to figure out what kind of world we have been given. The humanities try to figure out what kind of world we want to make. The humanities consist entirely of people reading, writing, talking and thinking. By holding one another to a high standard of rigor in the classroom, we will be able to do the same outside of the classroom. I doubt that Ken Lewis, John Thain and Dick Fuld were precocious students of the humanities.

The humanities suffer from an inability to assess the quality of an intellectual argument in the same way that mathematics or sciences do. There is no absolute standard by which to measure an argument against (like, say, a mathematical equation) or a standard method of argumentation which leads to necessary truths (like a geometric proof).    

But how are we to know if things like hegemony, existentialism, jazz, capitalism or heteronormativity are right or wrong? What would it even mean for existentialism to be right or wrong?

It would be right if it tells us both how the world we have created works and how we ought to live within it. The humanities have a moral imperative to pave the way for meaningful action. If they don't, then studying it is just a more expensive version of stamp collecting, where there is nothing at stake except our own leisure.  

In the stead of the degree of certainty enjoyed by those who study math and science, our duty as students of the humanities is to develop our own intellectual conscience that sets our standard for belief. It would have taken just one person with an intellectual conscience to see the problems associated with pushing subprime mortgages on people who can't afford them.

The concomitance of the dignity of intellectual discourse with the dignity of the surrounding world is an observable historical fact (the recent national debates about healthcare reform ought to be enough to demonstrate this). But as long as we are content to rest on our intellectual laurels within the humanities, we will never cultivate an intellectual conscience robust enough to oppose thoughtlessness.

I was listening to a roomful of students debate the necessity of the public option to meaningful healthcare reform, and realized that no one once mentioned what would be morally right. There was lots of talk of "deadweight loss" and other Econ 101 buzzwords that masquerade as having the same status as apodictic concepts like "gravity" or "addition," but no discussion of how healthcare reform can actually help create a better world. It was taken for granted that more efficient markets mean a better world for everyone.  

Intellectual conscience is the faculty of mind that opposes injustice, and the humanities are about cultivating a student's intellectual conscience. To the extent that the humanities foster unrigorous pseudo-intellectual charlatanism, our world gets that much more unjust, because no one has the good intellectual conscience to challenge thoughtlessness.

The proper practice of the humanities cultivates a student's intellectual conscience by forcing him or her to think rigorously about his or her beliefs. Since the humanities don't have a set standard of discourse, we can either do this well or we can do this poorly. When this is done well, the student's habits of thought that they develop in their study of the humanities carries over into all aspects of his or her life. When we can think well about things that don't matter, we most certainly will be able to think well about the things that do.
   
If we give up on thinking well about the world, then everything is permitted: we can only come to recognize injustice if we have carefully cultivated our intellectual conscience. This is the reason why Socrates called for philosopher-kings and not economist-kings.


Brian Judge '11 is a humanities concentrator from North Carolina. He can be reached at brian_judge@brown.edu  




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