by Isaac Butler
Gawker's Adam Weinstein has a piece up asking "Where is the Humanities' Neil DeGrasse Tyson?":
The National Endowment for the Humanities is more endangered than NASA. Funding for humanities research amounts to about 1/200th of the federal funding dedicated to scientific and engineering scholarship.
Yet science has Tyson, whose show airs on the same channel as American Idol. More than that, it has Bill Nye and Brian Greene, all of whom stand on the shoulders of Sagan and Richard Feynman. The pure and applied sciences have always had champions who can stir up national pride and, in so doing, strengthen our civic education and bolster our economy.
I'll argue about the veneration of Ken Burns and the "scholars" he's elevated some other time, because it seems to me that Weinstein's piece, as well meaning as it is, subscribes to a flawed understanding of how these sorts of cultural change really happen. It seems to argue that if only the humanities had a couple of Bill Nyes and a DeGrasse, we would suddenly find popular interest in them flourishing everwhere.
This is an attractive model. How often have theatre folk, for example, wished for another daring impressario like Joe Papp to come along and make theatre "relevant" again?
I don't want to minimize the contribution of Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye or anyone else, I think Cosmos 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.
One way we can see what a society values is in what it will spend money on. And our society spends a lot of money on beefing up STEM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Mathematics) education. It does this while using the rhetoric of a persistent (yet also always-looming) crisis in these fields that is, as Freddie DeBoer points out, largely mythical. In fact, STEM is so valued and the humanities so undervalued that our President can use the study of art history as a punch line when calling for increased education funding. The not-quite-even-subtext is clear: you can trust us to spend this money wisely, which means only spending it on science.
The other crisis facing science is the conservative attack on climate science (for financial reasons) and evolution science (for political reasons). But these attacks still reinforce how important science is. it's culturally important enough that we must constantly fight about it, advocates of science must be ever vigilant-- or so the thinking goes-- lest the barbarian hordes flood out of their megachurches and turn all of their SUVs on at the same time, triggering the apocalypse.
There aren't a lot of widespread cultural fights about the humanities anymore. Every now and then this performance artist or that play or this painting or that atheist anthropologist says or does something that pisses people off, but it's a flash in the pan, quickly resolved.
In this climate, it makes sense that a cadre of superstar scientists would emerge. Tyson, Nye and Greene worked very hard to push culture in a particular direction and to be in the right place at the right time, but they didn't do it on their own.
It's pretty much impossible for the humanities to have a Neil DeGrasse Tyson right now. Great Men of Greatness (to use Mike Daisey's term) don't emerge from nowhere, and there's nowhere for them to emerge from right now. It's not that we lack interesting, intelligent, mainstream scholars. We have plenty of them, actually. That's not the reason why no network is funding a miniseries called The Human Condition hosted by Stephen Greenblatt.You can't impose a culture caring about something by fiat.