Citizenship, Marriage, and Mosques: Problems in the Applied Humanities

Perhaps because of the budget woes that continue to afflict universities in this country, and the sober fact that the job market for new Ph.D.’s, especially in the humanities, is so dismal, the Chronicle of Higher Education has published a steady run of gloomy articles about the future of the humanities. You can find all kinds of criticism of the study of the humanities, but there’s a common theme: the study of the humanities doesn’t teach you anything practical, and as a result it’s a waste of time.

Of course, this is just absurd. We spend our daily life immersed in a sea of what I would like to call problems in the “applied humanities.” Here, I mean problems in the sense mathematicians use the word, meaning a well-defined question, worth investigation, but not yet fully understood. Let me give you a few examples of what I mean. I would like to begin with what I consider to be one of the most beautiful pieces of text in the English language. It reads as follows:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

This 14th amendment to the Constitution has recently become the focus of contentious public debate in a number of spheres. Sen. Lindsey Graham is only the most prominent individual to propose modifying the first sentence that promises birthright citizenship. How are we to react to this proposal? We could fall back on an emotional response, whether for or against. But such an emotional reaction utterly disregards the available resources provided by history, philosophy, and literature, each of which can illuminate the question in different ways. Formulating a reasoned position on birthright citizenship is an example of what I am calling a problem in the applied humanities.

This isn’t the only recent development involving the same amendment. Federal District Court Judge Walker invalidated California’s Proposition 8 banning gay marriage, citing the ‘equal protection’ clause of the same amendment. It is from the humanities that we can gain a perspective, not only on the narrower question of weighing the democratic principle of majority rules against the protection of minority rights, but also on deeper questions like: How does religion guide moral thinking? And what are the different experiences of love?

I could go on: The debate swirling around the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” is another situation where a careful application of reason informed by scholarship is surely called for. The phrase “hallowed ground” that is used for Ground Zero echoes Lincoln’s words “we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow this ground” in the Gettysburg Address. And it is an interesting exercise to ask how the values expressed in the Gettysburg address would inform our reaction to honoring Ground Zero.

Finding clarity on these issues is important because, fundamentally, we must live together peacefully in a functioning society.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from my education as a mathematician is that the world is filled with problems amenable to mathematical analysis. If you don’t know any mathematics, then those solutions are hidden from you. For example, it’s not obvious that mathematical statistics provides an amazingly successful approach to recommending music or movies; but in fact, that is the case. I would argue that a wide range of societal problems are naturally amenable to analysis using the resources provided by scholarship in the humanities; but this fact isn’t obvious to someone who hasn’t had basic training in the field.

If I’ve learned anything from my own liberal education, it is that I need not approach difficult questions of values as though they were entirely new. There are profound resources available from scholars of the humanities that illuminate those questions. I sincerely hope that we are educating our students to appreciate this fact.

I concede that I’ve focused here on “applied problems.” Certainly not all learning needs to be justified in utilitarian terms. The powerful mathematical tools that help us find movies we will like among the millions that we won’t have their origin in pure research. Similarly, it’s in the accumulated scholarship of the humanities, conducted for its own sake, that we can learn enough about our fellow human beings and about habits of thought and expression to enable us to take an approach informed by both empathy and rational thought to problems like “Who should be a citizen?” and “When should majority preference trump individual rights?”

To take a UConn perspective on all this, that’s why we need a Humanities Institute, and why it’s worth celebrating the Institute’s 10th anniversary and the many more to come.

Read more posts by Jeremy Teitelbaum, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, on his blog.

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