An Alliance of Geeks and Poets?

“This alliance of geeks and poets has generated exhilaration and also anxiety. The humanities, after all, deal with elusive questions of aesthetics, existence and meaning, the words that bring tears or the melody that raises goose bumps. Are these elements that can be measured?”
— – Patricia Cohen, “Digital Keys for Unlocking the Humanities’ Riches,” The New York Times, Nov. 17, 2010
Patricia Cohen, “Digital Keys for Unlocking the Humanities’ Riches,” The New York Times, Nov. 17, 2010

Patricia Cohen, “Digital Keys for Unlocking the Humanities’ Riches,” The New York Times, Nov. 17, 2010

This short excerpt from Patricia Cohen’s article offers so many tantalizing jumping-off points that it is hard to know where to start. As we at New York City College of Technology, with the help of Title V, initiate our “Redesign of General Education for a 21st Century College of Technology,” the context for the study of the humanities, nationally and internationally, is undergoing profound change.

Some aspects of this change, including the introduction of digital tools and methods, promise new discoveries and knowledge, as well as opportunities for new forms of collaborative work. On a smaller, local scale, City Tech’s Title V grant will implement a digital platform, enabling students to represent their own experience and understanding of the liberal arts and link their general education meaningfully and personally to their career studies. Our faculty will collaborate across disciplines to redefine general education for a 21st-century college of technology.
It would be a gross oversimplification, though, to characterize this cross-disciplinary faculty collaboration simply as “an alliance of geeks and poets.”
In fact, the City Tech faculty defies this or any other facile characterization. Humanities scholars at our college have long since embraced their inner geeks, demonstrating not only a high level of theoretical sophistication but also well developed technical skill. Nor are our scientists, engineers, architects and health professionals divorced from aesthetics or the humanities.
The Core Text project and the two NEH-funded projects that paved the way for the current work in Gen Ed were led by faculty from across the range of disciplines, reflecting their commitment to broad educational values.
The role of the liberal arts at City Tech is not simply foundational or instrumental; it is an essential facet of the education that we offer our students, who will be not only workers but also parents, citizens, artists, innovators and leaders. They will need to make moral choices, evaluate complex situations and tread turbid emotional waters.

Seeing their professors engage in conversations and investigations across disciplines about difficult and complicated subjects – and them-selves engaging in such conversations and investigations – might be the most important opportunity we can give our students. This is how they learn the value of different disciplinary perspectives, as well as the need to be both deeply informed about one’s own field of expertise and also able to converse with those from other fields or who hold different views.
Across the nation, however, extended study in the humanities is being curtailed as programs are being closed down in response to fiscal constraints. Universities are reducing duplication of programs in some cases; in others, however, they may be impoverishing their curricula by eliminating instruction in subjects that are not financially profitable but are educationally priceless.
In part, decisions to close humanities programs are related to rising interest in areas of study that appear to lead more directly or obviously to employment. When employment is tight, business and nursing seem safer or more practical choices than history, foreign languages or philosophy. And proficient graduates in these fields are surely needed.
But when the practical arts are divorced from the liberal arts, or the latter are dismissed as being impractical, education is in danger of becoming merely training, useful perhaps in the short term but not for the long haul, for the narrow purpose but not the broad spectrum.
As long ago as 1854, in his satirical novel Hard Times, Charles Dickens contrasted a purely utilitarian education, a reliance solely on “Fact,” with the need for “Fancy,” the power of imagination. More recently, in The Call of Stories and other writing, Harvard psychologist Robert Coles demonstrated the value of using fiction – novels and short stories – in the training of physicians, to develop empathy and emotional awareness. We cannot afford to ignore the “elusive questions of aesthetics, existence and meaning.”
And as much or more than ever, we need the “words that bring tears ... the melody that raises goose bumps.”