Alan Liu, “The Humanities and Tomorrow’s Discoveries”


The humanities are about discovery.
Discover the humanities.

Today, we use words like invention, innovation, and breakthrough to describe the most hopeful visions for the future of humanity. We pin our hopes on technological and other breakthroughs that might switch on whole new levels of economic, social, and personal well-being–or, just as important, help ward off threats to well-being. We even have a name for the greatest human challenges whose breakthrough solutions–not yet in sight–will require sustained innovation by large numbers of researchers across many fields. We call these “grand challenges.” As identified by the U.S. President’s Office, the Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, and other public and private agencies, the grand challenges for the 21st century will be global in scale and require collaborative, interdisciplinary solutions on multiple fronts: scientific, engineering, biomedical, agricultural, social, economic, cultural, ethical, and educational. World energy, world climate, world hunger and thirst, world disease, world security. These are some of the grand challenges of the 21st century.

Yet not one of the words invention, innovation, and breakthrough are as powerful as the word that encompasses them all and gives them their full human meaning. That word is discovery, for which a society’s preparedness in the humanities is as vital as in any other field. Discovery is what happens when an invention, innovation, or breakthrough occurs in a fully human horizon of understanding that radically multiplies its value, discovering connections to whole worlds of human meaning and possibility.

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Discovery is what happens, for example, when a new material (e.g., semiconductors), energy source (e.g., solar power), technology (e.g., the computer), medicine (e.g., vaccines), finance instrument (e.g., microfinance lending), or media (e.g., the Internet) enables, or is prompted by, widespread human needs, griefs, or aspirations.

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Discovery is also what happens when breakthroughs in one part of the world suddenly spread to other parts to touch off surprisingly different, but just as liberating, kinds of human empowerment. For example, discovery is the introduction of wind-up lights, mobile phones, malaria inoculations, or micro-finance lending in Africa.

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Most fully, discovery is what happens when we apply an understanding of human history, cultures, values, and languages to inspire, shape, or influence the creation and reception of breakthroughs. For example, a vaccine cannot be said to be fully “discovered” in a human way until we learn the social and cultural reasons that prevent its use in some parts of the world.

Children at moments of discovery:
video 1 | video 2.

At its base, discovery is a fundamental human activity. It begins with children imagining future or other ways of being human. It is a child laughing to see him- or herself in a video cam for the first time; it is a child using a short-wave radio to listen in on distant cultures and languages; it is a child dressing up in great-grandmother’s clothes from the old country to discover her roots.

There is a word for the kind of leader–whether scientist, politician, business person, media innovator, designer, educator, and others–who can inspire teams of researchers and inventors to make true discoveries. That word, interpreted broadly, is humanist. The humanities–which provide training in the histories, cultures, values, languages, and diversity of human beings as well as in creating connections between different areas of knowledge–remain at the core of what we want tomorrow’s generations to know so that they can meet 21st-century grand challenges.

The humanities are important to any society that wants to makes discoveries because the specific work of the humanities–in human history, culture, values, and language–helps us discover the full potential for, and also the limitations of, inventions, innovations, and breakthroughs. There is not a single “grand challenge” in the areas of energy, environment, biomedicine, food, water, security, education, and so on that does not require engagement with human history, culture, values, and language, whether as cause or effect, in order to discover solutions.



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What are some examples of discoveries in the humanities that help us to create, shape, understand, or assess discoveries in other research fields? [Click here to discover.]

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How can we sustain the rich ecology of knowledge needed for a true culture of discovery–one in which scientists, engineers, historians, language specialists, artists, philosophers, and others co-exist to spark each other’s insights? What will it take to ensure that tomorrow’s generations are sufficiently trained in the humanities to be real discoverers? [Click here to discover (under construction)]

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Who are some of today’s leaders who believe that the humanities are needed for tomorrow’s discoveries? [Click here to discover.]

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How can you get involved? [Click here to find out (under construction)]

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Discover the humanities on the Web (4Humanities), Twitter (@4hum), and Facebook.

 


The humanities are about discovery.
Discover the humanities.
Alan Liu is a co-founder of the 4Humanities advocacy initiative. He is Professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he works in a number of fields, including the digital humanities.

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