Making Our Universities a Source of Universal Knowledge

In the Spring print edition of City Journal, now available online, I have a long form essay on what can be done to bring together the sciences and the humanities in our universities and in particular revive the latter from the anesthesia of postmodernism. The distance between the humanities and sciences has grown wider since C.P. Snow discussed it six decades ago in his famous essay, “The Two Cultures.” And yet as Snow correctly said, we need knowledge of both to “think with wisdom.”

Here is how I begin.

Harvard University is opening a new campus devoted to engineering and the life sciences. It will be located next to the business school but a four-mile walk from Harvard Square and the main campus. This separation symbolizes how the modern university has cleaved itself in two. One university integrates three steps in the mastery of the natural world: science explains that world; technology creates the tools by which we master it; and business innovates to get those tools to market. The other university focuses on the study of man, his history, and landmark achievements in art and literature. It is traditionally concerned with understanding, not control. At least, it was.

I make three key points. First, the humanities are needed now more than ever because only they provide the understanding on how technology can be used to best help human flourishing. Second, under the influence of postmodernism humanities have been giving up this crucial role in transmitting the best of our traditions, and as a result students have been fleeing their majors. Third, it is imperative to revive the humanities because the faster that man changes the world through science, the more that he needs the humanities to provide the self-understanding to navigate the rapids to come.

I offer some novel ways to reinvigorate the humanities in addition to going back to a close reading of the great books — ways that will also help integrate science with the humanities. The power of technology and science can once again set the humanities on the road to truth seeking as well as provide students with useful skills. For instance, big data allows us better help to understand the past systematically and dispassionately. One example comes from law: the big data approach of corpus linguistics is a tool that can discipline the search for constitutional meaning.  Sociobiology is a science that can help us parse out the claims of human nature that are the basis of much political science. As James Madison asked, what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” Developments in biology help us pin that nature down.  

A final idea is for students to look at the social problems caused by new technologies, such as intervention in the genome. This requires understanding of technology and science but also forces students to confront technology morally and politically — and that requires knowledge of the traditions that shape judgment. In an age of technological acceleration, one of the best ways to make the past directly relevant is to consider the future.

Please consider reading the whole thing.