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On the Importance of Social Science and Humanities on Education

“Monday Musings” for Monday February 17, 2014

Volume IV, No. 7/163


Thinking Things Through

Dearth/Death of Humanities

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD DLFAPA*

Each year there are gazillions of meetings, assemblies, conventions, congresses and seminars held across the globe. Some of these meetings are celebratory in nature, some are to advance science, some are to anoint politicians and some are to promote a common cause.  In the past few years, we have had our own share. We have been able to welcome and celebrate the arrival of a prominent scientist, the first “Meymandi Fellow” at the National Humanities Center, and to learn from his scientific knowledge and benefit from his vast reservoir of wisdom. Dr. Edward O. Wilson is a Harvard Professor of entomology, father of sociobiology and twice Pulitzer Prize winner for his many books, among them, the famed volume, Consilience.

The National Humanities Center continues to enrich our society with predictable excellence and resourcefulness. Among other NHC Meymandi Fellows have been luminaries such as Dr. Helen Vendler, Harvard Professor of English and Poetry, and Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse, President of Rockefeller University, Sir Patrick Bateson, Emeritus Professor of Ethology at Cambridge University and President of the Zoological Society of London.

But as a good editor/writer should, I have sifted through the proceedings of hundreds of conferences held in the last couple of years, and here is a summary of the most consequential and impressive ones.The first meeting of stellar proportion was the Golden Anniversary of the day James Watson and Francis Crick walked into the Eagle Pub in Cambridge, England, and announced that they had discovered “the secret of life”. The discovery has been dubbed “the most important scientific breakthrough in the annals of Neolithic man.” This meeting was held in Berkeley, California. Among the participants was, of course, Nobel Laureate James Watson. Other luminaries were from the world of biochemistry, physiology, and biology. For three days they talked, they bantered, they gave brilliant papers on what the marriage of genomics, proteomics and textonics will bring to the 21st century and how knowledge will be democratized through textonics. Children of backwoods nations as far away as Timbuktu will have access to information stored in the Library of Congress, the Louvre, the Met, and libraries of the pre-eminent universities of the world. 

Other papers examined the marvelous achievements of advanced technology and science triggered by the Russian satellite Sputnik. The late ‘50s, all of the 60’s and 70’s accelerated studies of mathematics, science and physics, paving the way to the July 20, 1969 US landing on the moon.

All the while the humanities were placed on the backburner. Many thoughtful analysts believe the cause of widespread terrorism and horrendous losses such as 9/11 are the direct cause of that neglect. However, in the course of those three days, what was lacking, sadly, and to the chagrin of many, was an almost total absence of a discourse or discussion on how to transform the enormous amount of available information and technology into wisdom. If we ever catch up with this part of the missing link, perhaps we will have fewer 9/11 phenomena and threats of global terrorism.

At the conclusion of the meeting, it was agreed that input from humanities, such as philosophy, history, psychology, epistemology and linguistics, dance and poetry is needed to achieve the elevated goal of nirvana of wisdom, peace and love. The recent report on the humanities and social sciences, “The Heart of the Matter” commissioned by Congress and produced by a committee formed by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and co-chaired by our own Duke President Richard Brodhead, witnesses the conspicuous decline, if not absence, of the humanities in our academic lives. The Commission report has attracted a good deal of attention.

Another remarkable meeting in the past two years was a “Meeting of the Minds.” It was indeed a gathering of some of the world’s best thinkers. It was held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to discuss how scientists, people of religion, Christians, Moslems, Jews, Buddhists, Sufis and transcendentalists, can collaborate to understand the nature of reality. The meeting focused on neuroscience and psychology. The participants were The Dalai Lama, Arthur Zajonc, professor of physics at Amherst, Georges Dreyfus, Chair, Department of religion at Williams College; Ajahn Amaro, co-abbot, Abjayagiri Monastery, Ca.; Ann Harrington, Professor, history of Science, Harvard University; Stephen Kosslynn, Professor of Psychology, Harvard University; Eric Lander, Director, Whitehead Institute, Center for Genome Research, MIT; Jonathan Cohen, Professor of Psychology, Princeton University and Jerome Kagon, Professor of Psychology, Harvard University,  just to name a few.

The meetings were most stimulating and informative. The participants were indeed thinking through how to transform knowledge and information into wisdom leading humankind to peace. I was impressed by all the presenters. The common pathway to reaching peace, happiness and the ultimate form of unconditional acceptance, labeled by the Sufi as “love”, may be achieved through introspection, self-analysis and altruism. The Dalai Lama said, “Buddhism is a 2500-year-old tradition of analyzing and investigating the inner-world, the reality of the mind, in order to transform one’s emotions and reach happiness. It seeks to understand the causal dynamics of emotions. It uses intelligence to the maximum for the purpose of developing compassion.”

Looking back at the history of human conflicts as seen in ancient Punic, Peloponnesian, Thermopile and Trojan wars, the crusades, and the more recent wars, including the conflict in Iraq, we should learn that victory does not come with guns and swords but with understanding, compassion, self-denial and love. For example, it would be helpful to send ambassadors and representatives who know the language and the culture of their host countries. This would be a good start on the glorious highway of humility, love and respect for others. 


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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On Wagner and Opera

Monday Musings” for Monday May 20, 2013

Volume III, No. 19/122


Happy Birthday to Richard Wagner: A Few Thoughts about Opera

By: Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA

Day after tomorrow is Richard Wagner’s 200th birthday (May 22, 1813- February 13,1883). We celebrate his bicentennial natal anniversary with joy and some added reflections: Wagner was a German musician, opera composer, and a disciple of the German  philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, (Feb 22, 1788- September 12, 1860) with whom he split over the issue of “toleration”. Wagner was truly a genius. But he hated the Jews and the Italians, all of whom he called barbarians. He also hated the word opera because it is an Italian word and he thought Italians are of a lower race. Instead, he called his work “Music Drama“. Wagner was a contemporary of Verdi (October 10, 1813-Jan 27, 1901), the world famous and renowned Italian Opera Composer. Toward the end of his life, Wagner had a change of heart about Italians and had some good things to say about Verdi. But he remained a staunch anti-Semite.

Richard Wagner, the ruthless, racist and megalomaniacal genius not only composed his own opera but wrote the libretto (pleural, libretti), designed the stage, and conducted the work. His compositions are not just opera but an all-encompassing Gesamtkunstwerk, like the Super Bowl halftime show! In addition to writing the libretto, composing the music, and designing his sets, he was a brilliant prose writer. I recommend getting a hold of some 12 volumes of his original work and read them for the sheer power of their syntax and thematic composition.

He also architecturally created the Bayreuth Opera House where his work was produced and staged.  After 200 years, almost all of his operas including Flying Dutchman, Ride of Valkyries, Tannhauser, and Die Meistersinger Von Numberg are a steady diet of most opera houses and symphonies throughout the world.  Exactly a year ago, North Carolina Symphony, played in the first half of the program Prelude to Act I, Lohengrin. The second half featured the memorable performance of virtuoso violinist, Itzhach Perlman playing Violin Concerto in D Major, Opus 35, by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. As an aside, North Carolina Symphony had just played Carmina Burana on May 11 and 12. On May 17, there was a special program of classical music for the NCS patrons, and on May 18 and 19, the vocal music of Steve Lippia fed the souls of music connoisseurs. Raleigh has an extraordinarily rich cultural life.

Wagner’s writing and Teutonic operas tell us that he had a deep knowledge of history. His operas, especially Tristan and Isolde, and the “Ring Cycle” consisting of four operas, 18 hours, are full of Zoroastrian parables, Buddhist reference to “nothingness” before becoming “something” and the writings of Rumi, Shams Tabrizi, and Baba Taher Oryan. He loved Aryan Persians as much as he hated the Jews. He spoke of the Jews as inferior creatures preoccupied with usury, money changing, and nothing else. He made fun of Jewish cantorial music and ridiculed the religious tradition of the Jewish synagogue.

Delving into his personal life, one discovers that he was an illegitimate child of a Jew, Ludwig Geyer. He was born in the Jewish quarter of Leipzig, the ninth child of Carl Friedrich Wagner who died six months after Richard’s birth, following which Wagner’s mother began living with the actor and playwright Ludwig Geyer with whom she had a longstanding relationship. Ludwig was a friend of Richard’s late father. Richard almost certainly suspected that Geyer was his natural father. He and Ludwig whom he publicly called “Dad” shared a love of theater, opera and language. Around age 14, however, Richard changed his name from Richard Geyer back to Richard Wagner.

In his early life, Wagner was heavily influenced by Shakespeare and Goethe. He was determined to set the writings of these two illustrious authors into music. In 1826, at age 13, he started to take music lessons. By 1827, the family had moved back to Leipzig. Wagner’s first lessons in harmony were taken in 1828-1831. In January 1828 he first heard Beethoven’s 7th Symphony and then, in March, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony performed in the Gewandhaus. Beethoven became his inspiration, and Wagner wrote a piano transcription of the 9th Symphony. He was also greatly impressed by a performance of Mozart’s Requiem. From this period we have Wagner’s early piano sonatas and his first attempts at orchestral overtures. In 1829 he saw the dramatic soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient on stage, and she became his ideal of the fusion of drama and music in opera. In his autobiography, Wagner wrote, “If I look back on my life as a whole, I can find no event that produced and left so profound an impression upon me.” He had an unsuccessful marriage to Cosima, and had disastrous relationships with other women including Minna Wagner.

In Wagner lies an enigma. He was a truly brilliant artist with gifts in music composition, writing, poetry, and deep knowledge of history who was pathologically intolerant of others, especially Jews. Yet he was the son of a Jew and had Jewish DNA. His profound anti-Semitic rant has given to millions of words of psychobabble attempting to explain that his hatred of Jews was deeply rooted in self-hatred. As a person, he had no shred of decency and no touch of sublime humanity. He broke up with his idol and mentor, philosopher Schopenhauer, because of Wagner’s extreme hatred of the Jews. Schopenhauer could not take Wagner’s extreme intolerance of the Jews. Personally, I take and enjoy Wagner’s rich and lasting contributions to the arts and literature, and merely ignore the rest of him.

On the local scene in Raleigh, for the opera lovers, North Carolina Opera is growing. It produces two or three operas a year. I am looking forward to the day we will have an opera house built on the proposed Dix Park. Then we can not only do the more lavish and demanding Wagner operas, but stage some modern operas the list of which is approaching 90. I have noticed and admired the Met’s willingness to add some of the modern operas such as Cyrano de Bergerac with Placido Domingo as Cyrano, Sondra Radvanovsky (Roxanne), and librettist Henry Cain. I have yet to see any opera in America  by Michael Tippett, Hans Verner Henze and Olivier Messiaen (I saw his Saint Francois D’Assie in Paris last year), and other composers.

Meantime, Happy 200th Birthday to Richard Wagner!


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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