In Defense of the Humanities

Ethel Spowers, Val de Grace, Paris, 1923

Ethel Spowers, Val de Grace, Paris, 1923

Heidi E. Kraus ~ Assistant Professor of Art History and Director of the De Pree Gallery

As an art historian at Hope, a small, private liberal arts college, I am required to teach more than just studio art and art history students. The majority of my students come from a variety of disciplines, backgrounds and abilities. My First-Year Seminar on Global Paris this semester, which just ended, focused on examining national identity using the city of Paris—its history, people, art and culture—as a case study. Over the course of the semester, students have grappled with challenging questions, such as: “What does it mean to be French today?” and “How is contemporary France reflective of its past?” In seeking answers to these sometimes-uncomfortable questions, which often center on religion, racism and colonialism, I hoped that students would look to their own experiences, recognizing that they, too, are part of a global society.  To that end, their classroom presentations required that they investigate some aspect of their identity.



“T-Rex,” University of Utah

Two intended science majors took to the front of our classroom to give their presentation entitled, “In Defense of the Humanities.”   I squirmed a bit in my chair, unsure how this was going to play out.  Was this actually going to be a defense of the humanities or a mockery of them? What could first-semester freshman really bring to this discussion and, moreover, what did this have to do with their identity? They flashed an image on the screen. At the top of the image is a man in a white coat and dark tie, wearing glasses and holding a clip board in his left hand. With arms stretched upward in a gesture of achievement, the man looks at a large egg that has started to crack. Below this scene, a large tyrannosaurus rex is seen moving towards the now diminutive man, running for his life with papers and clipboard trailing behind him. The text makes the image unmistakably clear: “Science can tell you how to clone a tyrannosaurus rex. Humanities can tell you why this might be a bad idea.”

The students proceeded to tell the class that, while they both identify as science majors, exposure to the humanities during their first college semester has greatly enriched their major course of study. Admittedly, prior to college they did not understand why a class such as ours was necessary when studying to be a neuroscientist or biologist. Yet, after the student-presenters took their seats, I felt more hopeful about my own identity as a college professor who teaches in the humanities. Courses in the humanities are teaching these students about the world and places other than their own, reminding them to slow down and be more aware, and, perhaps most importantly, modeling for them how to communicate.

Computers can do many things, I often tell my students. But computers cannot yet think critically. That is up to us.

~ Happy Holidays from the Paris Grand Challenges Team!



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