A Biochemist for the Humanities

Thomas Jones

In the latest issue of Genome Biology (thanks to Alan Rudrum for pointing it out) there's an angry open letter to George Philip, the president of the State University of New York at Albany, from Gregory Petsko, a biochemist at Brandeis, protesting against the budget cuts that have led to SUNY axeing its French, Italian, Classics, Russian and theatre departments.

As for the argument that the humanities don't pay their own way, well, I guess that's true, but it seems to me that there's a fallacy in assuming that a university should be run like a business. I'm not saying it shouldn't be managed prudently, but the notion that every part of it needs to be self-supporting is simply at variance with what a university is all about.

Here's hoping Genome Biology has sent complimentary copies to Britain's MPs for them to read alongside Stefan Collini's piece in the LRB and give some thought to what it is they're about to vote on later today. If only.


  • 9 December 2010 at 11:38am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    In a few years' from now, people will ask themselves why these barbaric decisions were made and there will be nobody who can explain in any language.

    • 9 December 2010 at 1:01pm
      James Alexander says: @ Geoff Roberts
      Because there won't be any articulate, trained historians, political analysts, philosophers, etc, to do the job? Another positive result for the knuckle-draggers?

    • 10 December 2010 at 12:07pm
      outofdate says: @ James Alexander
      Mind you, on their own terms the humanities are pretty much as worthless as their worst enemies make out.

    • 10 December 2010 at 1:09pm
      pinhut says: @ outofdate
      I saw this during my undergraduate studies (BA Writing, Dartington College of Arts). There was a constant influx of scientific-sounding language into our course materials, and I found it ridiculous. What it reflects is a lack of self-confidence.

      The root of this problem is possibly what has also caused the crisis in religious thought - namely, that we now know that our subjective experiences really bear no relation to what is actually going on in the physical universe. So, with science now firmly at the edge of human inquiry into the nature of reality, the only relevance the arts can claim is by attempting to nab a few ideas and give them a little spin. This explains why Schrodingers Cat has become a recognised subgenre within avant-garde circles, as artists attempt to make use of ideas that reflect their post-modern predicament (the Uncertainty Principle is another favourite).

      Personally, I found it a defeatist approach.

    • 10 December 2010 at 3:18pm
      outofdate says: @ pinhut
      Here, here (as it were). But do keep quiet about it around Thomas Jones, he simply adores Pynchon.

    • 10 December 2010 at 5:12pm
      Geoff Roberts says: @ outofdate
      I've obviously missed the point here. In my naive way, I thought that these soft courses like philosophy, history Eng. Lit and stuff helped you to get your mind round the basic questions of the universe and develop a critical judgment that will help you see through the fallacies of scientific thought and the pretentious generalistaions of the economist wizards who got us into this mess in the first place. The tendency of these departments to infuse some pseudo-science into their courses can be blamed on F.R. Leavis.

    • 10 December 2010 at 5:13pm

    • 11 December 2010 at 1:41pm
      outofdate says: @ Geoff Roberts
      Of course you're right in principle, but the question is funding, no? Why should the state pay for everyone to question everything and cause needless aggro to the body politic?

      I'll be eternally grateful for having got the kind of education that thanks to the John Major administration is no longer available to anyone, but it's benefited the common weal precisely nothing. My own inner life is vastly more amusing to me than it would otherwise have been, but so what? I just got lucky. The world would be no worse off if I was a plumber (though admittedly no better either). For all the money that was spent on my education I've not stopped a single war, I've improved no one's dental hygiene, I've just sniped from the sidelines. Ask the taxpayer how much that's worth to her.

    • 11 December 2010 at 3:17pm
      Geoff Roberts says: @ outofdate
      I suppose you're right, he wrote grudgingly. I also benefited from a liberal arts education (I think) and was grateful that the university courses were no longer confined to Latin, Greek, Philosophy and that was it. So change was necessary and good, but the kind of market-based consumerism that we are now seeing will lead to a growth of the two-dimensional thinking that now passes for politics, Economics and the kindred 'services' sold to 'willing customers.'

    • 11 December 2010 at 9:08pm
      orlp says: @ Geoff Roberts
      Before I write my comment I should own to my bias: I am a mathematician.

      In my experience scientists know a lot more about the arts and have more respect for them than vice versa. Arts graduates sadly tend to know very little about the sciences, often because they cannot understand mathematics and have little idea about its nature.

      This is borne out by the reaction to a comment from a scientist supporting the arts and questioning whether the criterion of "paying their own way" should really apply to all university courses.

      I would go further than he does and claim few worthwhile university courses really pay their own way. Certainly neither mathematics nor pure science do, as is shown by the government's decision to continue subsidising them.

    • 12 December 2010 at 8:05am
      pinhut says: @ Geoff Roberts
      "I’ll be eternally grateful for having got the kind of education that thanks to the John Major administration is no longer available to anyone, but it’s benefited the common weal precisely nothing."

      I went to probably the most avant-garde arts college in Britain, Dartington College of Arts. I have to agree. The chief beneficiaries of my higher education were my inner life (enriched) and that of my friends. Wouldn't agree that Pynchon is that avant-garde though. There are a whole bunch of literary artworks (artist's books) that are unique artefacts and/or 'challenge the concept of the book itself', etc. And, just in the field of standard publishing, Blanchot, Bernhard, Christine Brooke-Rose, Robbe-Grillet, Beckett, Gertrude Stein, Genet, B S Johnson, Ann Quinn, Queneau, Perec, Calvino, etc, push things much further.

      I'm not kidding, the score for this:

      was considered a key text on our course.

      I don't it as pretentious twaddle, etc, because there is generally some intellectual/political content in these works re: what is culturally acceptable / sustainable and so on. But they do, when extracted from their context, naturally, invite all sorts of ridicule. At the end of it, for me, anything beats the vacuity of the standardised entertainment product has worth.

    • 12 December 2010 at 8:07am
      pinhut says: @ orlp
      But of what does this scientist knowledge of the arts consist? I doubt it is particularly specialised, but if you will provide some details, I'm ready to be surprised.

    • 12 December 2010 at 8:09am
      pinhut says: @ pinhut
      And the course was worth it just to be introduced to this.

    • 12 December 2010 at 9:56am
      orlp says: @ pinhut
      I will give one example of many. An acquaintance of mine, a research professor of ophthalmology, is widely read and extremely knowledgeable about music. Indeed his two children have chosen careers in music one as a composer and composition teacher the other as director of operas (with Glyndebourne and Salzburg credits among others).

      In general when scientists of my acquaintance talk about the arts they are knowledgable, interested and regard them as important. The usual response I get from arts acquaintances when I mention that I am a mathematician is "Oh I never could understand maths", said without the slightest shame. I never hear "Oh I never could see the point of the arts" from scientists.

    • 12 December 2010 at 1:22pm
      outofdate says: @ pinhut
      I didn't mean Pynchon's all that avant-garde, I meant only that he's done a great deal of sucking up to science.

    • 12 December 2010 at 11:58pm
      pinhut says: @ orlp
      Not nearly enough detail to be regarded as a sufficient answer. From where did this knowledge of music come? Is it any wonde that scientists may have more knowledge of the arts when it is far more widely present in the general culture than scientific information. There is definitely a thirst for knowledge about science on the part of the public, as the quantity of popular science books testifies to. And, indeed, most of my artist friends have a selection of such books on their shelves.

      “Oh I never could understand maths”, said without the slightest shame. I never hear “Oh I never could see the point of the arts” from scientists.

      Why should you imply that not understanding maths equates to not understanding the point of maths?

    • 13 December 2010 at 11:10am
      More that there's too damn much about it in his books, which was the line of argument at one stage on this tangled thread, but we'll never agree. Maybe there's simply those who can bear it and those who can't; Pynchon just sprang to mind. 'But please ... observe if you will...,' Gerhart Hauptmann said to Thomas Mann, 'in my father's house are many mansions!'

    • 13 December 2010 at 12:09pm
      orlp says: @ orlp
      You asked for one example, so I gave one example of many. Now you are asking for details of my acquaintance's musical studies in the same post in which you say "why should not understanding maths equate to not understanding the point of maths". So you are asking scientists to study the arts, while it is sufficient for arts graduates to "understand the point of science".

      On your second point. The quote "I never could understand mathematics" itself shows that the speaker has no idea what the nature or point of mathematics is, since it is not the kind of cookery book recipe sums that are taught at GCSE (and which is what they "never could understand". Also the pride with which this is announced shows an attitude that is very rarely if ever exhibited by scientists in respect of the arts.

  • 9 December 2010 at 7:48pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    About this kettling of demonstrators that I've read about in the Guardian today: now that everybody in the world has got their own mobile telephone, it ought to be possible to organise avoidance tactics so that everyone scatters. Aren't there any Sandhurst students on these demos, people who learn about pitched battles?

  • 10 December 2010 at 2:07am
    philodemus says:
    "As for the argument that the humanities don’t pay their own way, well, I guess that’s true"

    I agree with the rest of the sentiment, but why suppose automatically that this is true (at least in the US)? There are almost zero costs to an institution for running a humanities department, all of whose members will be heavily involved in teaching. Consider by contrast that a not atypical experimentalist in the sciences can cost $1m just in equipment.

    More here:

  • 10 December 2010 at 11:51am
    outofdate says:
    In my day if you had a good degree in English from a good university you walked straight into a job in the city (if you were a swine). That wasn't actually as long ago as I like to make out. So maybe the humanities don't pay for themselves, but they have that serving-the-job-market thing going that we're told is so vital for the modern university, whereas I really don't know what you'd do with a Desmond in biochemistry. Just saying.

    • 13 December 2010 at 6:08pm
      Chris says: @ outofdate
      In my day (early seventies) walking into a city job was possible only if you were the right gender and from the right universities. I eneded up as a book editor, not typically well paid.

    • 14 December 2010 at 12:29am
      outofdate says: @ Chris
      Why, what gender were you?

    • 14 December 2010 at 6:51am
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ outofdate
      Book editor.

  • 11 December 2010 at 2:01pm
    echothx says:
    Dehumanized, when math and science rule the school by Mark Slouka in Harpers Sept 2009 "Nobody was ever sent to prison for espousing the wrong value for the Hubble constant."
    —Dennis Overbye
    Do medical students protest less?

  • 14 December 2010 at 11:31pm
    lostlit says:
    This is why literature needs go back to the Modernists and push forward. post-modernists, I think, destroyed the intrigue and the joy of fiction by internalizing it to the point of solipsistic irrelevance. Ever read excerpts from Infinite Jest?

    "I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies. My posture is consciously congruent to the shape of my hard chair. This is a cold room in University Administration, wood-walled, Remington-hung, double-windowed against the November heat, insulated from Administrative sounds by the reception area outside, at which Uncle Charles, Mr. deLint and I were lately received.

    I am in here."


    "My fingers are mated into a mirrored series of what manifests, to me, as the letter X."

    The 'X' means nothing, his mated, mirrored fingers, as a series - which is odd - not only conveys nothing but confuses.

    There's something of the perspective of a more science-influenced point of view here which destroys its worth as artfully conveyed human experience. It shouldn't be mistaken for existentialism. I think it's right to be objective in modern literature in terms of the sense of his "I am in here." but it should not lack poetry as it so often does. It's like there's no heart, no taste, smell, touch - just plain sight and hearing.

    That and there are too many books being published which were written primarily to be made into movies. But everyone knows that.

    • 15 December 2010 at 11:36am
      outofdate says: @ lostlit
      Well, yes, them's the real enemy, not so much books written to be made into films but books aspiring in themselves to the condition of TV, all three acts and forever affirming what you already think you ought to think. One more sensitive account of the miracle of birth and how dad carked it and I will set something on fire, there aren't that many mansions in my father's house.

Read more