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Gianotti '13: A humanist's call to arms


A Martian mission, the Higgs boson, thought-controlled robots - Brown has constantly been in the news this summer for its great contributions to scientific research. Universities such as Brown are at the head of advancements in knowledge from archaeology to biomedical engineering. This focus has allowed humankind to advance tremendously in the footsteps of its pioneering scholars.

The advancements are a result of a comparatively recent attitude driving scholarship, termed by Yale professor Anthony Kronman as the "research ideal." Research has become the organizing principle of higher education around the world. The focus on pioneering new fields has worked remarkably well for scientific disciplines and is aligned with the very spirit of the sciences themselves. The funding and support for such projects that advance our knowledge and understanding of the scientific and intellectually obscure proves their efficacy to society.

The research fever is contagious. The University is now, from all sides, a research institution, dominated by and profiting from this scientific spirit. Research is not only the underlying principle of sciences but also of the humanities, changing the discipline at its very foundation. The very way we organize humanities, into disciplines defined primarily by research methods and focus, is done to systematically facilitate the University as an innovation machine.

A humanities education in this country used to compel students to strive to answer pressing and challenging new questions in a world with increasingly secular values. Is it possible to live a meaningful life in a godless world? Can a man or woman determine the meaning of his or her own life? A university strives to provide an intellectual community of scholars and students to grapple with these questions together, accessing the collective wisdom of the past.

Even classics, a discipline formed by the civilizations upon which it focuses, has felt the heat. Seminar talks center on new findings based on innovative readings of ancient plays and even more ancient epic poetry. Archaeological findings challenge or supplement the handed-down accounts of historians. The humanities have followed suit in large part to follow funding.

The humanities provide an answer apart from religious doctrine but not reliant on solely individual discretion. They educate students as inheritors of a holistic legacy, and as members of a community that transcends time, space, language, systems of government, religious movements and even philosophical notions of ethics.

Kronman describes this legacy as "structures of meaning" - all of which are man-made, and none of which are immortal. At various stages of history, our world has looked, sounded and thought very differently, but the constancy of the human condition keeps the remnants of past civilizations relevant to the education of new generations. It is an education that is ethical without being dogmatic, a pedagogy that allows for the freedom of the individual and requires membership of society. These are values essential to American culture.

Unlike its subject peers across campus, those humanistic disciplines housed in the structures of old are not benefiting from the transformation. In fact, the research spirit undermines this older ideal of a secular humanist.

Today, students of the humanities are compelled to be specialists, concentrating in particular disciplines, languages, media, societies and cultures. This is true in large part because of the demands of preparing for a life after college. Whether joining the workforce or continuing with graduate school, both employers and admissions panels like to see applicants with strong backgrounds in necessary skill sets.

The efficacy of specialization is an economic principle originating perhaps with the distinction between hunters and gatherers. Post-Adam Smith and the advent of the assembly line, the modern industrial world is defined by this principle of specialization. More can be accomplished if workers specialize, and this is as true among professors as among factory workers.

The typical American university allows us access to a true and well-rounded humanities education. And the educational system still values generalists. This country provides the opportunity, but it remains for students to stay stubborn against the call of the "next step" and believe in our own value and integrity as individuals - not as tools to be sharpened for a determined task.

As subscribers to the amorphous New Curriculum, we Brown students must work harder to endow our education with a sense of moral purpose. Without a core curriculum, we must continue to push ourselves outside of our comfort zones. A sense of right and wrong, an understanding of human nature, a respect for human accomplishments and deference to its limits will inform what we do as much as any learned expertise.

Nor should American universities let the research ideal overshadow their unique role in the formation of our minds and the cultivation of our souls. An awareness of those "structures of meaning" handed down to us from the past will make for a better generation of leaders. As University students we share the responsibility to use Brown's resources to ethically prepare ourselves for challenges ahead while infusing society with a renewed sense of moral responsibility, one that is grounded in our own understanding of the humanities.


Claire Gianotti '13 is a pretentious and militant classics concentrator and can be reached at



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