By Isaac Butler
Last week, I talked about Gawker's plea for a Neil DeGrasse Tyson of the humanities and how we often over-credit "great men" when talking about change:
I don't want to minimize the contribution of Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye or anyone else, I thinkCosmos is great, and I share Weinstein's celebrration of it and desire for a rockstar humanities guy or gal to bring the humanities to a mass audience. Still, the cultural context in which Tyson et al operate is incredibly important. They're able to do what they do in part because the pursuit of scientific knowledge is constantly reinforced as both good and a good. It is also seen as in a state of constant crisis and thus forever in need of support, spokesmanship, advocacy and money.
Shortly after I wrote this, rockstar humanities professor Simon Schama launched a general interest, high-profile mini-series on PBS about the history of the Jews. He joins a cadre of other rockstar humanities professors, including most prominently Henry Louis Gates, who have hosted similar shows on public television. Gates's most recent one was The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, which you can stream in its entirety from PBS's website. The truth is, we have the Neil Degrasse Tysons of the humanities. They exist. They just aren't given the same platform that the Skip Gateses of the worlds get.
And I can't help but suspect that this has something to do with money. Just as we emphasize and reemphasize STEM education in part because it is what is "useful" to corporate America, we emphasize the contributions of Tyson on major for-profit international network Fox rather that the contributions of Gates for national, nonprofit PBS. The framing, in other words, only returns us to the question of values.