David Brooks stimulated a brisk national discussion last week in a column called “The Humanist Vocation”.(1) In it, he noted that college majors in the humanities had dropped from 14% to 7% in the past 50 years. In the piece he defined the job of humanities “to cultivate the human core, the part of a person we might call the spirit, the soul, or, in D.H. Lawrence’s phrase, ‘the dark vast forest.’” As for the professional humanist’s job, Brooks said it is “to cultivate this ground imposing intellectual order upon it, educating the emotions with art in order to refine it, offering inspiring exemplars to get it properly oriented.”
To some extent, this “battle” between the humanities and the sciences/technologies is – and has always been - a false dichotomy. Both intermingle. Both search for truth and understanding. Both seek to improve the lot of humankind on this planet. In fact, whenever leaders on either side of this divide seek to draw insight from only one point of view or the other, we humans have veered sharply toward self-destruction.
Health professionals spend a great deal of time in the scientific realm. We attempt to be rational, diagnostic, informed, and on solid evidentiary grounds. The problem is that our knowledge is so incomplete, and our human natures are so complex. It’s humbling really to be a doctor or nurse. Human beings taking care of other human beings requires trust and confidence on the one side, and insight, knowledge and a bit of wisdom and humility on the other.
You can work for a lifetime caring for others and still find yourself struggling for the meaning of life – with incomplete answers from both the arts and the sciences.
Take this past week. In 2011, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) suspended all new grants for biomedical and behavioral research on chimpanzees.(2) Then yesterday, they took it one step further and began retiring the chimps to registered sanctuaries. (3)
As a human being, I found that reassuring. Somehow allowing this experimentation I felt diminished all of us as human beings. And in the scientific realm, any perceived value of these intrusions into another life form were deeply disturbing and of diminishing scientific value.
In a separate realm of science, today we learned that Voyager 1, launched 35 years ago and still working away with enough nuclear fuel to last until at least 2020, has traveled 11.5 billion miles from Earth. That is far enough to be the first man-made, artificial object to leave the solar system and enter intersellar space.(4)
When it was first launched, NASA scientists predicted that when and if it reached this point, the solar wind – the constant stream of charged particles blown outward by the sun – would disappear. And to everyone’s amazement and satisfaction, that’s exactly what happened.
But they also predicted that once the ship emerged from the Sun’s magnetic bubble, the direction of the magnetic field would reverse. And that did not happen, and nobody knows why. One scientist, struggling with the contradiction, said, “We’ve begun to see what’s outside even though the magnetic field says you’re not outside.”(4)
What does it mean to be human, and where do we humans fit in the world? This week, the NIH spared some fellow creatures continued unnecessary misery. But at the same time we haven’t figured out how to close Guantanamo – a place where some health professionals assisted interrogations and participated in torture. This week also we have entered the wider reaches of the Milky Way as my grandchildren are rediscovering everything Star Wars that fed the imagination and spirit of our children 35 years ago when Voyager 1 and 2 were first launched.
We seek. We struggle. We learn. We fail. We succeed. But most of all we try – drawing from both the arts and the sciences. We try. As for health care, if health professionals deserve the trust and confidence of other humans, it is reasonable that we should expect more of them – like Jedi Knights, a cut above, principled, trust-worthy, trained, strong, and wise. Such wisdom requires the support of both the arts and the sciences.