I am not interested in the discourse of the day, but I am interested in trying to increase my number of blog posts, especially when I ought to be working, therefore let’s go. Get ready for some incoherence.
Cet gazouillis has been doing the rounds lately and has drawn the typical responses which could be (broadly) organised in the following schema:
- Lol das rite.
- Akscthually humanities are seriously hard because (an example of something that is easy for anyone with a basic level of literacy).
- They’re equally hard guys because (a recherche example with little likelihood of ever happening); can’t we all get along?
I suspect 1) is generally correct and that the Sciences have a much higher difficulty ceiling. That said, I am not confident your average science student is much (if at all) more intelligent than your average humanities student. I am not one of the precious few who stand proudly in the middle of the church with one leg on a pew either side of the isle. My early education was quite science driven and I have worked in a quant driven field, but my academic specialisation is very much in the Classics. But a few things beyond seeing the psychometric data from several hiring rounds a various firms and experience of a common room or two on a mid-weeknight makes me think I am intuitively correct here.
To be fair, most stemtards seem to think they’re the modern-day equivalent of Newton or von Neumann rather than the product of a specialist education. This is important. Spending your 30’s writing code to help
This is something we really ought to stop and think about. How many harmful experiments (see the recent issues around gain of function research), how many studies that fail to be replicated, how many recondite papers read by a handful of incestuous reviewers and researchers, could we avoid if we, ahem, curtailed the number of universities and depts out there? I’ve long said this for the humanities and the social sciences, and it stands to reason for the “hard sciences” too. Kill the universities. Ahem, anyway.
We should also take a second to consider why the Sciences are treated thusly. Everyone is making fun of the Econ/Business guys (do you dumb fucks not have pensions?) but a quick look through the lens of supply and demand should be clarifying. Yes, shockingly, corporations want as many people competing for their jobs as possible. Graduate training schemes are not Giffen goods.
Let us now turn to category 2). The rhetoric here is interesting, leaving aside the meaningless word salads that come from a place of insecurity next to style-over-substance avenue, an interesting pattern emerges. Take a look at this:
Do you see it? Comments like these are interesting as much for what is there as what isn’t. to start with the former, how many English students (majors if you insist on being American), can do any of that. I have wasted a good twenty minutes now looking through the bios of various lecturers and professors at differing institutions and I unsure of how even a motivated undergraduate course piece together a syllabus for themselves that would allow them to do that well. A “specialist” Shakespeare course would be pointless, one would need the correct understanding of the development of English phonology and metres as well as a medley of historical and economic courses. In short, the kind of thing that was the standard offering until about WW2. Many such cases. Let us leave aside the fact that I am not even an English student, and I can think of infinitely more difficult topics within the (former) mainstream of the discipline. This is designed to demonstrate the difficulty and thus the worthiness of the field. Rhetorically it fails for two reasons. Firstly, it lacks the punchiness of something like “Calculus II”, and, secondly, it is not indicative of what most humanities grads do or are capable of. Most humanities (“liberal arts”) students can get a degree without going further back than the 19th century.
Which leads us nicely to what isn’t being said. Well, that’s the stuff humanities depts. are known for nowadays. C’mon guys, where are the plugs for eco-criticism? 4876875th wave feminist theory? Indigenous theory-praxy? Decolonising this or that? We consistently see a revealed preference whenever these subjects are forced to justify themselves qua “rigour” (whenever rigour is not decried as a white supremacist concept) for what is essentially old school classics: language, culture, history, context. Even 15-20 years ago it would be rare to find the student who could not spend the morning writing on “what Athenian society tells us about the plays of Aristophanes”; the afternoon on “Is the archaeological evidence more or less useful for the fall of western Rome than the literary?”; and the evening on “What can aspect in Slavic languages tell us about the development of the Greek verb?”, though that is now likewise rarer than birds’ milk.
Like I said, revealed preference, even most humanities people subconsciously know their fields lack rigour and, groping about for a defence, they get their crayon-stained mitts on some parody of the previous generation’s excellence. Why then should we humanistae be upset when scientists call out our fields? After all, our professionals have been the ones ardently hollowing them out, making them easier, for decades. #ClassicsTwitter is a perfect example of the madness. Whenever someone suggests the languages are mandatory, they are publicly pilloried, courses such as “Classical References in Video-Games” are advertised and touted, lecturers gleefully mention all the alternate ways to assess their students. The scrolls of Callimachus are in the hands of a conspiracy of dunces and even the best-meaning younglings now graduate knowing more about citational justice than the critical apparatus. Humanities specialists have done this to themselves. They have done this to us.
n.b I am not automatically equating rigour (however measured) with worth. At least not unequivocally. But that is what the initial tweetstorm laid out as the terms for the debate and I don’t think you can entirely unentangle them. The contents of university courses, especially in societies where they are funded by taxes, are up for criticism. Anyway, carrying on.
Let’s wind down with the third category. No, not the idea that both humanities and science are equally difficult – that’s untestable and I don’t care – the idea both are needed. The humanities, good humanities, are only going to draw more from science in the future. This is to be expected, as our baseline technological competency goes up newer generations will be able to do more with less training. E.g I was encouraged to spend some time with programming languages – Python and JS – to see if studying man made languages gave me any philological insight. It did not. But it was useful in other ways. All that time learning database management for archaeological topics was directly useful in the professional world. The truth is what the grey hairs call “digital humanities” the rest of us just call doing our fucking homework.
One area which scientific advancement has completely blown open is ancient DNA. This has, ironically, been a vindication of traditionalist methods vis a vis archaeological and theoretical ones for the most part but that is neither here nor there: the exciting things will happen when ADNA allows us to go beyond vindicating/trashing current paradigms into discovering new ones.
This is not to say that it is game over, that science is here to solve all the humanistic problems in some sort of Whiggish road to progress. We’ve all seen the attempts at applying evo psych to Greek texts, game theory to Roman military strategy, medical diagnoses to historical characters and such. The languages are no more immune, perhaps you remember the absolutely cringey papers in journals like Nature which tried to model the relationship between PIE languages not as languages (on which we have a lot of data) but as germs (because why the fuck not?). It was excruciatingly moronic, evidently so to anyone who does not own a “I fucking love science” t-shirt and received a strong, sadly under-read, response.
Note what made the team here capable of launching such a strong defence. Not schlocky theory, no buzz-words and jargon, they didn’t even attempt to call the Nature team cisheteropatriarchs; all this was borne of the specialism of careful study of difficult material. The humanities are capable of adding to our knowledge and fighting back against real misappropriation like that, but only when done correctly. This is what is at stake here, this is what is at risk, because proper humanistic learning is neither flashy nor sexy. There are no cutting edge grants to be won, no labs with principal investigators, nor is the attention getting stuff particularly liable or likely to stand the test of time.
The title alludes to C. P. Snow’s famous The Two Cultures which has predictably been cited by a few tweeters (though less commonly than one would have assumed: remember, nobody reads anymore). There is much in this book worth discussing, though perhaps its worth is predicated less on its perspicacity as social/intellectual history and more on the snapshot it preserves of the old academy. I suspect much will be foreign to non-Britons specifically, such as Snow’s discussion of our hyper-specialist degrees and the A Levels and OxBridge examinations that lead up to them; and much to people generally, such as his odd contention that it is traditional subjects, not sciences, which hold sway over society. Yes, seriously. This was an indefensible claim at the time he was writing, let alone now. Perhaps I might have been better off alluding to Feynman’s 1974 Caltech address, but the overall point of a bifurcated intellectual cultures is one I want to expand upon. Let’s take his most famous example:
Once or twice, I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s? I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question – such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? – not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language.
Snow must be being deliberately provocative, or else obtuse, here for he must have known that those scientific concepts are learnt in school as mandated by law in the UK. So is Shakespeare too, I guess, but if we properly parse his polemic, we can see that he is using Shakespeare as a stand in for his dreaded traditionalist/conventional learning. How indicative is that of modern humanities departments? How traditional are the curricula and the skillsets passed on?
This is the true risk to Classics, its true tragedy. It belongs to neither of the two cultures as nowadays conceived. True there are elements drawn from the sciences both in the formation of hypotheses ( comparative philology makes, breaks, or otherwise proves predictions) and method (the careful arranging of manuscript stemmata, or the stratigraphy of sites) as well the humanities but at its best represents a third culture, scorned by scientists and modern humanity specialists a like.
Maybe this is a good thing? One can plainly see the material of the subject if not its modern guardians are an endless source of fascination to people. Look at the response to any A-DNA paper touching on antiquity, or what happens when Marc Andreesen tweets out a reference to Fustel de Coulanges’ The Ancient City. Ariel Saber recently wrote a best-seller on what is basically just papyrology 101 (Veritas). Maybe the way forward is the way back to a more rigorous curriculum on our side of the divide. More and more humanities graduates are realising just how much the map is not the territory, how a piece of paper does not grant you the respect of a graduate. Perhaps its time to stop blaming everything and everyone but ourselves?
You must forgive my incoherence. Like most of you I am tired of the constant back and forth between those of us who really love our subject and the oddly hostile professoriate. I am not even targeting them specifically here; one can imagine how precarity and the incentives of a university bloated with administrators and suffering the scurvy of grade inflation might impact any real standards. But to explain is not to excuse and if the humanities are dying anyway they may as well go out with some pride and self-worth. In the mean time, I haven’t quite started finished the post on how to learn Ancient Greek, but why not start by learning some Latin?
 Classical Philology ride or die, betch.
 You’re not allowed to dead-name Zuckerberg just because he wore white-face that one time.
 You won’t admit it, but you had an atavistic reaction to that pairing. You know you can’t voice is in the current climate. You coward.
 In so far as all you would be doing is regurgitating/rephrasing what the prof is telling you without ever acquiring the tool sets to replicate.
 Surely English has some interesting problems of dialectology or the derivation of early MSS? I mean they’ve probably all been solved by Classicists on leisurely lunches, but still.
 I think it fair to say that calculus is around the level of Mathematics a normal human can be expected to grasp regardless of actual specialisation. When it starts getting to combinatorics or groupoids, get a proper stem guy in.
 I’m using Classics far too loosely here. Let’s think of it not as a basket of content/area of study but a set of principles and methodology. You can substitute “Classics” for old school Assyiology, Egyptology, ASNAC, etc etc.
 It always shocks me how eager students are to go along with this. Oh, everything is open book? Oh, you get extra credit for listening to a podcast? Bro, how much are you paying for this? Jesus.
 There is especially piquant for Classics, a field that has made very early use of all sorts of emerging technologies.
 Buck the trend and at least check out the original Rede lecture, here: https://apps.weber.edu/wsuimages/michaelwutz/6510.Trio/Rede-lecture-2-cultures.pdf (opens in a PDF!)
 And I say this as someone who considers PPE to be a humanities degree.