Discovery Has No Roadmap

I originally published this over at BlogUT, but it’s the culmination of things I’ve been mulling over here, so I thought I’d repost it.

In one episode of The West Wing, speechwriter Sam Seaborn finds himself trying to secure funding for a quantum physics experiment that has no practical applications, whatsoever. Trying to justify himself, as usual, before an unfriendly senator, Sam shouts out that the experiment matters because discovery has no roadmap, because we cannot know when something will come along that will change the world.

That’s the really frustrating thing about the humanities, even more than quantum physics – that so much of what happens in the humanities has small effects, maybe inspiring an article here, a dinner-time discussion there. If even. But every now and then, something earth-shattering comes along, some profound thought that changes the way we view ourselves, what we study, how we live, and what we do. Like the writings of Rousseau, Locke, Neitzsche, T.S. Eliot, that changed the way entire generations, entire centuries viewed themselves, or that changed, like Locke, the layout of the entire world. Celtic studies, Middle Eastern studies, and Eastern European studies are so contentious because people are still using them to define themselves. When Edward Gibbon wrote his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, his work said as much about Victorian England as about late antiquity.

And then there are those works in the humanities that will never shake the earth, but that make that which shakes the earth happen. Every discovery builds on previous thoughts. Robert Butts and Lawrence Cremin’s A History of Education in American Culture is not a groundbreaking work – it is only available in one copy in the entire U of T library system – but it informed the opinion of the court in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education supreme court case, which ended school segregation in the United States.

And then there are those ideas that never really gain a significance outside of their own fields, but that keep the fields going for their own sakes, that make us think about something more than just our taxes while we cook dinner or walk our dogs.

The humanities, far more than the sciences, are unpredictable. There are no set experimental steps that will take you to a set outcome, and the impact of research is nearly impossible to measure. So it’s all too easy to write the humanities off as useless, or a waste of money. The thing is, as important as our gadgets may be, society and social change are what define our lives and the way we live them – and neither of those things can function without the products of work in the humanities. That is why cuts in humanities funding, like King’s College London’s recent decision to scrap the UK’s only Chair in Paleography, are atrocious. That is why we owe it to ourselves to create the best possible environment for study and research in the humanities. That is why the humanities matter.

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