“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.