In Defense of the Humanities – peter krey
How can this website help scholars for whom no doors have opened in these difficult economic times and where the job market for those in the Humanities promises only to get worse? Why should a scholar work on a translation and receive less than a dollar an hour for working? And believe me: translating convoluted, academic German is hard labor! Other languages are even more difficult. Why should a scholar who spends years of labor on an important contribution in an academic field receive less than $100 in royalties? What is wrong with this picture?
How can our labor receive more financial support? It may be possible for those of us who have faculty positions as our basic income to work in this way, but what about exploited part-timers in our community colleges, adjunct faculty working for universities, and even graduate students working as teaching assistants? Advancing research in our fields does not provide a livelihood.
Along with this issue of support, our website hopes to grapple with the shadow that the Humanities work in because of the strong emphasis our society places on math, science, and technology. It is true that many of the technological crises that we face can only be solved by technological means. But as Lewis Lapham speaking with Michael Krasny on Forum, in defense of the Humanities, said, “Our technologies find continuously improved means toward increasingly ill-defined ends and if we don’t know what we are making or why or where to point the digital enhancements, then we are likely to murder ourselves with our own toys.” The Humanities are a necessity and not a luxury for making these ends more human rather than less so. And human history has become more and more a race between education and catastrophe, as H.G. Wells was quoted as saying on the same program.
It is without a sense of history for our society, in the light of science, to take responsibility for one million years of storing nuclear radioactive waste. Or what can one make of probabilistic risk assessment for a nuclear reactor meltdown calculated to happen once in 100,000 years, when we have had Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and now the plants in Fukushima in 2011? Really that is one accident every ten years. Scientific durations of time are without a sense of history. Our own country is only 235 years old! Human history goes back only 6,000 years before we have to start speaking of pre-history. Some kinds of problems indeed need scientific and technological solutions, but the Humanities are necessary to pronounce our historical vulnerability and to determine a course through the seemly apocalyptic nature of recent times.
Finding our way without learning from History will prove very difficult. In describing the way our culture lags behind technology, William Sloan Coffin used to say, “We are technological giants and moral midgets.” To quote the Forum program again, Arthur Schlesinger said, “History is an antidote to foolishness.” In the face of science and technology increasing the deadliness of our weaponry, we need the Humanities to teach the kind of reconciliation that makes wars obsolete. We are wasting the earth’s resources in mutual self-destruction and when the time comes when we need these resources for human survival on this planet, they will not be there.
To quote Lewis Lapham from the Forum program just once again, “Think of the sciences as the House of Representatives and think of the Humanities as the Senate.” It is high time that the Humanities get into the sunlight and out of the shadows for the renaissance in Theology, Philosophy, and History that our culture and society so desperately needs.
 Lewis Lapham speaking with Michael Krasny on Forum, March 24, 2011. See http://www.kqed.org/a/forum/R201103241000
 See the New York Times article by Matthew L. Wald, “Japanese Crisis Revives U.S. Fight on Nuclear Waste,” Thursday, March 24, 2011, page A-1 and A-3: “One problem is that the courts have interpreted federal law as requiring the Energy Department to show that the waste can be safely stored in canisters there for one million years. So far, the department has established only that it can contain the material for 10,000 years.”
 New York Times, March 28, 2011, John M. Broder, Matthew L. Wald, and Tom Zeller, “At U.S. Nuclear Sites: Preparing for the Unlikely”: “The commission, looking at how much radiation it would take to kill people in accidents, and how much it would take to raise cancer rates, decided that reactors would meet that standard if there were meltdowns with off-site consequences only once per 100,000 years of operation.” With 104 nuclear reactors in the United States, that makes it once every 1,000 years or so.