Letter to the Editor: Humanities at CMU are healthy, and will grow

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

In a thoughtful and well-written column, Dietrich College student Emma Flickinger argues that we only seem to celebrate the humanities when they are connected to other disciplines, and rarely for their own sake. Although we should certainly celebrate the humanities all by themselves, I don’t view our efforts as a sign that we are letting the humanities “fall by the wayside,” rather I view it as a core part of an intentional strategy designed to help the humanities thrive at Carnegie Mellon. Flickinger’s piece did make me realize that we have to do a MUCH better job of showcasing our commitment to the humanities at Carnegie Mellon and explaining how we intend to grow them. In what follows, I will begin this project, but by no means finish it.

Student interest in the humanities has been up and down over the last 50 years. After the financial crisis of 2008, student anxiety over employability resulted in sharp drops nationwide in the number of humanities majors and the number of students enrolling in humanities courses. At Dietrich, student interest in primary majors that lead to a first job (e.g., statistics, or information systems) has exploded, but student interest in additional majors and minors in the humanities has bucked the national trend and held steady. Of the four departments in Dietrich with the highest number of student enrollments in the 2017-2018 academic year, three were humanities departments. Although only a tiny handful of the more than 90 distinct majors at Carnegie Mellon require a language, almost 45 percent of Carnegie Mellon students take a course in Modern Languages, a rate nearly triple the national average.

Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines at Carnegie Mellon are increasingly recognizing the value of adding or integrating the humanities into their research and education, and this is what we want. The demand for incorporating ethics, rhetoric, history or epistemology into topics like artificial intelligence, climate change, technological disruption or machine learning has increased dramatically. We also welcome what STEM has to offer us in advancing our own scholarship in the humanities. What’s exciting, original, and truly valuable about Six Degrees of Francis Bacon is first and foremost the humanities part: what we have discovered, with the help of computers, about the world of Francis Bacon, and about the social and power dynamics in early modern England. Flickinger wonders how many people who know about this award-winning project even know who Francis Bacon was. Well, more will now, thanks to a collaboration between a Carnegie Mellon literary scholar (Christopher Warren) and a statistician (Cosma Shalizi).

What we are doing with the humanities is what Carnegie Mellon does with all of its disciplines: encourage them to combine freely with each other and all other disciplines, especially when doing so leads to better ways to investigate questions that matter. This is our secret sauce.

When disciplines live inside of silos, they go stale. We have to make the humanities invaluable to scholars, students, and employers. In my view, the best route to this end is to join forces with other disciplines whenever and wherever we can. Our Philosophy Department has made itself so desirable to researchers in biomedicine, computer science, psychology and other disciplines that this academic year they will receive over $2 million in grant funding from the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and U.S. Air Force. This is singular among American universities, but because of it, the department can also employ philosophers who do philosophy for its own sake.

We are extremely excited about the energy in the humanities at Carnegie Mellon. In the spring, we will present the initiatives we are undertaking, both in research and in education. We will organize a town hall open to all students, staff, and faculty interested in the humanities and their future at Carnegie Mellon, and discuss our strategy openly. If we are to make Dietrich a destination for Carnegie Mellon-style humanities, then we need and want your help.

The leadership in Dietrich and Carnegie Mellon passionately believe that reflecting on the human condition is crucial to any education of value and that to do so effectively requires humanistic inquiry. We are first and foremost a university, and we will never let the humanities go by the wayside.

Richard Scheines (@scheienes) is the Dean of Dietrich College of Humanities & Social Sciences.