Creative Co-Dependents: Science, the Arts and the Humanities, Catharine R. Stimpson

  Creative Co-Dependents: Science, the Arts and the Humanities
Catharine R. Stimpson, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science, New York University

Every culture organizes its norms and its intellectual and imaginative activities. That is what makes a culture a culture. These systems and schemes change over time. Driven by external and internal forces, they evolve. Today, in university culture, evolution has brought us three great divisions: the arts (be they visual, performing, literary or media); the professional schools and their work; and the arts and sciences. The arts and sciences themselves consist of three divisions: the humanities, the social sciences and the sciences. My cataloguing is, of course, too neat and tidy. These fields are in great internal flux. Moreover, they overlap and interact, a messy process we call interdisciplinarity. To add to the confusion, within the arts and sciences, various disciplines slide and shift around. For some, the arts and sciences are synonymous with the liberal arts. For others, only the humanities and the softer social sciences are the liberal arts. For some, history sits squarely in the humanities. For others, it has straightened up and joined the social sciences. For some, psychology is a social science. For others, it too has straightened up and joined the sciences. For some, anthropology rests on four corners. For others, cultural and physical anthropology should bid farewell to each other.

I could go on and on with my taxonomy. Differences and distinctions matter enormously. Indeed, I fear any effort to reduce life’s many pluralisms and to smoosh everything together under one overarching law, or under one monolithic identity. However, my purpose is to praise the co-dependency of these fields of activity, a co-dependency that will persist no matter how these fields evolve. You may find co-dependency a strange term of praise. Co-dependency can mean interlocking weaknesses, the relationship between the sadist and the masochist, or the relationship between the alcoholic and the enabler. However, co-dependency can have the far more affirmative meaning of a relationship among equals who recognize that they have common interests as well as complementary strengths and who know their individual well-being depends upon the well-being of the others.

Before going any further, let me confess that my original approach to this brief exploration of co-dependency consisted of two parts: the argument and the feeling about the argument. In the last few weeks, I have modified both elements. The shifts in the argument are the more minor. I was to say that the arts, the humanities and the sciences were co-dependents that need each other for fresh insights, methods and tools. I am now adding the social sciences to this group. The arts, the humanities, the social sciences and the sciences are co-dependents. Whether they admit it or not, and often they don’t, they need to rely on each other. Moreover, I am no longer going to say only “arts,” “humanities,” “social sciences,” and “sciences.” I will also talk about artists, humanists, social scientists and scientists. I am supplementing the language of impersonal fields with the language of human agency and action. My primary reason for doing so is to remind us of a simple truth. Although in complex ways, people create fields, their structures, their networks and their modus operandi. People strengthen fields over time. Alternatively, people allow fields to atrophy and decay. People are responsible for fields. Fields are not responsible for people. Similarly, a farmer, given the right tools and security, is responsible for the proper husbandry of her or his fields. The acreage is not responsible for the farmer. To speak only of fields is to run away from the human matrix and ethical consequences of our creativity.

The shifts in my feelings are the more significant. I was going to be light-hearted and a trifle droll, but like many of us, I have experienced a change of mood since September 11. I am much more impatient with the neuroses of my four co-dependents that impede co-dependency—with their seemingly endless self-absorption and anxieties and vanities and bouts of self-definition. Even interdisciplinarians, and I count myself among them, are self-absorbed and anxious and vain and prone to bouts of self-definition. When I write a piece for a women’s studies journal, or when I team-teach my course in law and literature, am I doing interdisciplinary work? Or multidisciplinary work? Or transdisciplinary work? Interdisciplinarians, of course, are hugely dependent, since they need all the disciplines to be there to be transcended if they, the interdisciplinarians, are to transcend disciplinary borders. My impatience, even irritation, has one great source. I believe that our survival depends on artists, humanists, social scientists and scientists collaborating creatively.

By “our survival” I partly mean the modern university. Numerous though they are, huge though they can be, rich though some of them are, universities can be vulnerable institutions in terms of financial support and social acclaim. People within them need to understand and defend each other. People within them also need to understand and defend the whole. For what should these historic and precious institutions do? They simultaneously make discoveries and cut paths back into our past. They provide pictures of reality and models of interpretation. They seek to heal our wounds and generate the growth of ideas, policies and the built environment. At their best, they are primary public sites of civility and freedom. Although it is the custodian and steward of the analytical and the true, the university as a whole — not just the arts — shows the imagination in action. Or, in corporate parlance, universities should permanently think outside that poor, old, much-maligned box. I don’t know what we would say if we did not have that box to kick around. Alfred North Whitehead, the philosopher, thought that the great function of universities was to animate the imagination. He declares flatly:

Imagination is not to be divorced from facts: it is a way of illuminating the facts. It works by eliciting the general principles which apply to the facts, as they exist, and then by an intellectual survey of alternative possibilities which are consistent with these principles. It enables men (sic) to construct an intellectual vision of a new world, and it preserves the zest of life by the suggestion of satisfying purposes. (Whitehead, p. 93)

Armed with these values and ambitions, the university trains the next generation of scholars, researchers, professionals and citizens.

Despite these virtuous activities, the university often meets with social suspicion or indifference. The knowledge it generates may seem notoriously arcane, useless, frivolous, worthy of nothing but the Golden Fleece award that Senator William Proxmire once invented. However, when trouble comes, and it always does, the knowledge that has seemed arcane becomes essential. Scholarship about Afghanistan, to give but one example, no longer seems so peripheral to American officials and citizens. I often think that universities are like gas stations. Drivers speed and zoom past them cavalierly, but then, a driver suddenly needs gas or oil or spare parts, and heads straight for the station. Society likes the credentials the university offers, but speeds past us–until it has to know something unexpectedly. Happily, there we are, with our robes and funny hats, fussing around with our footnotes and eager to share our suddenly useful knowledge.

Even more importantly, by “our survival” I mean life itself. We cannot comprehend, nurture or enhance life unless we bring a number of perspectives to bear upon its movements and complexities, its ranges and its matters. These perspectives should come from any or all of us. Our constructed sense of life must be as rich and thick and hybrid and multiplicitous as life itself. Let me offer one stark, contemporary example: a man planning a major act of bioterrorism. We won’t get him — in all meanings of that word – if all that we do is to declare war and have law enforcement target him. We also need the artist to imagine him; the humanist to hear his own words and translate his languages, and understand his history and religion; the social scientist to map his politics, ethnography and psychology; and the scientist to decipher what his weapon is and how to disarm it. Only with this collaboration will we begin to be able to understand him, and only if we understand him can we really stop him and the next generation of terrorists he might be recruiting.

Given how essential it is for us to act as co-dependents, why are we so reluctant to practice co-dependency? One major reason is familiar: our structures and cult of specialization. To be sure, as our life becomes more and more complex and differentiated, specialization is inevitable. To be sure, too, specialization has much to be said for it. It does focus thought. It does force us to push further and further into a question. Encouraging depth, it discourages shallowness and superficiality — a constant risk of interdisciplinarity. Whenever I am really sick, I want a specialist who has seen hundreds if not thousands of cases like mine. However, specialization does breed rigid and isolated departmental structures, the “silos” of contemporary jargon about advanced inquiry. These isolated departments then fear and disdain The Other, departments in another field or budgetary unit. Specialization also nurtures a fetishistic attachment to one subject, activity or method. Francis Bacon, a founder of modern scientific thought, was aware of these dangers. In Novum Organum in 1620, he sought to reconstruct the sciences. The book is also a profound analysis of the ways in which the mind can go wrong. Of specialization, he writes:

Men become attached to certain particular sciences and speculations, either because they fancy themselves the authors and inventors thereof, or because they have bestowed the greatest pains upon them and become most habituated to them. But men of this kind, if they betake themselves to philosophy and contemplations of a general character, distort and color them in obedience to their former fancies; a thing especially to be noted in Aristotle, who made his natural philosophy a mere bondservant to his logic, thereby rendering it contentious and well nigh useless. (Bacon, p. 39)

The cult of specialization mars every field. Each field also has its own defences against and resistance to a mature co-dependency. The field I know best is the humanities. They are among my life’s passions, but they are a problem.[1] To their overwhelming credit, since the 1960s, humanists have become increasingly diverse – socially and intellectually. In part because of their increasing social diversity, they have been intellectually active, often prodigiously so. Not only have opened up individual disciplines. Not only have they created new field after new field. They have often been ardently interdisciplinary. I think, for example, of women’s studies or of African-American studies. Humanists have also renewed the most searching of questions, especially about the relations between objectivity and interpretation, and about the powers of discourse and rhetoric. The work they do is necessary for our grasp of the past, our sense of form and beauty, our theories of value, and our interpretations and representations of the human world.

One shocking, contemporary example of where we need a humanist’s insights. A columnist for the Hamas weekly Al-Risala, based in Gaza, writes open letters to people, ideas and events. In November, he wrote No. 163, “To Anthrax.” It begins, “Oh Anthrax, despite your wretchedness, you have sown horror in the heart of the lady of arrogance, of tyranny, of boastfulness! Your gentle touch has made the US’s life rough and pointless…” The “Letter” then continues:

You have entered the most fortified of places…the White House…and they left it like horrified mice….The Pentagon was a monster before you entered its corridors…And behold, it now transpires that its men are of paper….Nevertheless, you have found your way to only eight American breasts so far….May you continue to advanced, to permeate, and to spread.” (Al-Subh, 1)

Perhaps a reasonable person would throw away this piece of trash, but I would first call on a humanist to translate it from Arabic into English. Then the humanist would tell me why might this be effective rhetoric and propaganda. Why is anthrax being personified as a seducer, at once wretched, powerful and gentle? Why is a disease being sexualized in this fashion? And why is the reviled enemy represented as a woman? Is this the rhetorical act of ultimate contempt, to feminize the enemy? If so, what does that say about the cultural forces for which the letter writer speaks?

Despite the valuable developments in the intellectual work of humanists, they are less than mighty presences in higher education. This was not always the case. The classical liberal arts were central to their society. They provided the training, largely in rhetoric, that free men were thought to need if they were to develop morally and to grow into their civic role. Significantly, and sadly, only free men were to benefit from the liberal arts. However, in the last century, even though higher education has expanded, the figure of the humanist has shrunk. A common third person identity of humanists — that is, what people think of them — is that humanists are nice enough, and valuable enough, but not really all that important. On some campuses, they belong to “service departments,” the housekeeping staff of the curriculum. This diminution in the United States leads to a common feminization of both humanists and artists–despite the macho swaggers of Ernest Hemingway and Jackson Pollock. The arts and humanities are women’s work, or, at best, a gentleman’s work. Far more important are the men and the tough-minded women in business, the professions and in the sciences.

These attitudes are embodied in our practices everywhere. I think, for example, of the decline in baccalaureate degrees in the humanities, or of the comparative funding of the National Science Foundation and of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, which were in part modeled on NSF. Another way to measure the place of the humanities is to walk or ride around the campus of a research university. You will note, of course, the size and glitz of the non-academic buildings, the stadiums and gymnasiums and student centers. Youth and the alumni must have their pleasures. Of the academic buildings, you will see huge medical centers, with a school and laboratories and a teaching hospital. You may also pass by schools of dentistry, pharmacy and nursing. The other professions — law, engineering, public administration, education — will each have their edifices. In some universities so will communications and library science. Social work will no doubt have its home. Business will be housed handsomely. It does, after all, teach 20 percent of the undergraduate majors in the United States. The performing and visual arts will have a building, exhibition spaces and theatres. And then you will search for the arts and sciences. You will see a library, now wired and digitized. In part because of the federal support of scientific research since 1945 and the end of World War II, you will usually find that science has its spaces, but then you will pause before the humanities and social sciences, often in older buildings, even the original buildings on the campus, frequently huddled together, and more apt to be brick than marble.

As a consequence, the first-person identity of humanists — that is, what humanists think of themselves — is often understandably riddled with a sense of loss, of being beleaguered, anxious about the future, aware that low enrollments in the humanities will affect faculty hiring. Some respond stoically. Some generate smart strategies of survival. Others, however, are given to rhetorical outbursts, quarrelsome amongst themselves, and, no matter what their ideology, even self-pitying. Robert Weisbuch, now the president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, once served a term as the interim graduate dean at the University of Michigan. He has written that when the scientists came to his office, he reached for his checkbook. When the humanists arrived, he handed out Kleenex.

Given this situation, it was perhaps inevitable that many humanists would be drawn to a particular cluster of theories that they have then adapted and developed. These theories have many sources: Marx, Foucault, the Birmingham School of Culture Studies, women’s studies and gender studies, various studies of race and ethnicity and post-colonial studies. Whatever the sources, this cluster of ideas has postulated that the heart of culture and society is a set of power relations, hierarchies of the powerful and powerless, dominant and subordinate. The humanities are on the short end of the stick of power, among the powerless and subordinate. They seem to have internalized their ideas. Unfortunately, they lack the psychic support that modern artists have, the buoyant, historically burnished and consoling belief that they are members of a subversive avant-garde, cultural and moral visionaries, pioneers who will do their work and wait for society to catch up to them. To be sure, the humanist has a rhetorical equivalent, “My obligation is to tell truth to power,” but humanists rarely possess the glamour and cachet of artists, especially in more urbane and sophisticated circles.

When humanists fit my admittedly oversimplified psychological profile, they cannot be confident, persuasive spokespersons for the humanities, an inability that intensifies their marginality for the public. They cannot, for example, winningly argue that the humanities are a splendid vehicle of life-long learning. This is a pity, because the vehicle of life-long learning will carry the humanities far. Nor can humanists happily, consistently connect the academic humanities with all the humanistic activity outside of the academy — with the museums and historical societies, the programs and Web sites of public broadcasting, the African-American reading groups and the Trollope societies. The academic humanists, with some exceptions, remain intellectually far-flung but institutionally insular.

Not surprisingly, many humanists have different feelings about different fields. Affinities exist between the arts and the humanities, although they follow different rules for what good work is. In great part because of the “linguistic turn” in the social sciences, humanities feel comfortable with many anthropologists and sociologists. However, they feel resentful towards “the harder” about social scientists, especially economists, and towards scientists. Humanists believe that economists and scientists have power, prestige and resources, and they do not. Accompanying these feelings and beliefs can be a paltry knowledge of what scientists actually do. Although we humanists pride ourselves on being readers of texts, many of us do not know how to read contemporary scientific papers, let alone know how do to science. We could not check out the recent proof of Fermat’s last theorem. I believe that more scientists practice the humanities than humanists practice science. This lack of professional scientific training shows in the thinness of some (but by no means all) of the work done under the rubric of “science studies.”

Some of us also fear what science and technology have created and are creating. Our text is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written in 1817 by a 19-year old woman, the daughter of a radical feminist, the wife of a radical poet, conversant with the scientific theories and interests of her time. Mary Shelley is, in brief, an artist who provides humanists with materials about scientists. Victor Frankenstein is a gifted scientist who wishes both to discover the causes of life and to create new life. He succeeds, but he then finds the man he has manufactured monstrous, and runs away from him. Alone, despised, without a name, Frankenstein’s creation goes on a rampage of arson and murder. Frankenstein’s sin is two-fold: his hubris in imitating God and creating life, and his heartlessness and cruelty in refusing to nurture and educate and love his new Adam.

However, humanists’ responses to scientists are ambivalent rather than wholly resentful and fearful.[2] And fortunately, some humanists and scientists, like some artists and scientists, are collaboratively building bridges among the fields. Some talented polymaths among us even embody these patterns in their individual lives. They follow the traditions of Aristotle, Da Vinci, Kant, Goethe or George Eliot, a novelist who explored science, medicine, history, languages and religion. Obviously, all but the most resolutely old-fashioned humanists use the new technologies that modern science and engineering have invented. We send e-mails complaining about administrators who don’t understand the humanities. Intellectually, the landscape holds comparisons of science and literature, and of music and mathematics. We have histories of science and technology. Cultural studies is trekking through the narratives of speculative and science fiction, be they in literature, film or the media. Medical anthropologists are producing ethnographies of the use of the new reproductive technologies. The descendents of Mary Shelley are exploring the moral consequences of scientific work from the invention of nuclear weapons to the cultivation of stem cells. Perhaps most profoundly, humanists are asking if scientific creativity is not changing the very definition of being human. The borders between man and machine, especially between mind and computer, are no longer so sharply demarcated. Nor are the borders between the human and other species. How purely human am I if I have a pig valve implanted in my once-failing heart?

Happily, ambivalence is a better platform on which to build co-dependency than resentment and fear. Partial bridges among the fields are better than none. With ambivalence and partial bridges as our starting points, how can we pursue co-dependency? One place is the reform of graduate education. If graduate students do not have or learn co-dependent temperaments and practices, when and where will they? They are, after all, to be the next generation of scholars, researchers, artists and teachers –whether they have academic or other careers. But the organization of graduate education, with its stress on individual programs and mentors, mitigates against co-dependency. It fosters both academic specialization and social atomization, the clustering of lectures, seminars, brown bag lunches and holiday parties within the program. Programs that demand that graduate students work in the field or on papers as individuals — rather than as teams in the field or in labs – split the social atom and produce even more isolation. One of the appeals of graduate assistant unionization is its promise of solidarity across a graduate school or university.

Co-dependent temperament and practices are nothing new. They have long characterized esteemed, productive and beloved scholars. A co-dependent is collaborative, willing to exchange insights and ideas, even at the risk of making a damn fool of yourself. A co-dependent is connective, able to function as a part of various networks of information. She or he prizes curiosity, wondering what might be around the corner, or between the lines or in the folds of the cosmos. Crucially, a co-dependent is comparative, able to see similarities without wanting all phenomena to converge, and equally able to see dissimilarities without wanting all phenomena to fall away in showers in fragments. Finally, a co-dependent in temperament and practice is cosmopolitan, a citizen of a homeland and of the ever-expanding, head-banging universe of ideas.

My most recent ways of nurturing such collaborative, connective, curious, comparative and cosmopolitan temperaments and practices may seem like a slender vessel for such ambitions. Last year, with the support of two private donors, my graduate school constructed a small seedbed, a group of 10 students that was drawn from across the university and from a variety of disciplines. They study epidemiology, history, comparative literature, economics, music, neurosciences, public policy and education. They are known, not very imaginatively, as the Graduate Forum. They meet at least once a month, and their deliberations are to be summarized on their Web site. The Forum has two faculty members who serve as academic facilitators: one is a chemist who takes her graduate students to the theatre at least twice a year; the second took his graduate degrees in interdisciplinary fields and studies violence in the media. The purpose of these deliberations is deceptively simple. They are to discuss their work with each other, baring the fundamental assumptions and methods behind it and justifying its importance. Their first evaluations are now in, and this is what the graduate students praised: the chance to make friends with different ideas, the new clarity about their own work they achieved by having to explain its assumptions to peers and by comparing these assumptions to those that governed their peers. What they wanted next, they said, was a common project, something they could do together, an opportunity to engage in inquiries that might become more than the sum of their parts.

I am still searching for support for a second ambition: to experiment with general education for graduate education. General education has been construed as an element of the undergraduate curriculum, and I can hear howls of protest about its possible introduction to the graduate curriculum now from graduate faculty and students now. Graduate education means specialization, they will cry. We want to get on with our specialized research. We don’t want to waste time on subjects outside of our field. These howls, I suggest, are symptoms of the illness that general education for graduate education is meant to ameliorate.

Lurking behind the explicit justifications of general education in undergraduate education in the United States is, I believe, an unconscious nostalgia for the role of the liberal arts in the medieval university. There were set books. Eventually, there was in scholasticism a set methodology. The faculty of arts was the only gateway to the professional schools of theology, law and medicine. However, the explicit justifications of general education respond not to the pull of medieval university but to the push of the burgeoning, growing modern American one. General education was to cultivate American democratic values and to provide a common educational experience to cohorts of very diverse students chosen, not for their common social background, but for their abilities. Its philosophy was succinctly expressed by James Bryant Conant when he was the president of Harvard and a moving force behind the 1945 Harvard report on general education, colloquially and commonly known as the Red Book. The introduction to the Harvard report emphasizes the influence of historical events on educational change. “The war,” it declares, “has precipitated a veritable downpour of books and articles dealing with education…There is hardly a university or college in the country which has not had a committee at work in these war years considering basic educational questions and making plans for drastic revamping of one or more curricula.” (President and Fellows of Harvard College, p. v)

A basic assertion is that education is fundamental to a free society. One reason why lies in the connection, which Conant makes in his continuation of Enlightenment traditions, between cognitive powers and the will. You must be able to make choices freely, but you cannot make choices freely unless you have the complete truth about the nature of these choices, or as much truth as you can derive, muster and accumulate. Freedom is regulating one’s life according to truth. (p. 105) If education teaches us to balance the freedom to choose and the capacity to make disciplined choices, it also teaches the young to balance self-fulfillment and citizenship, active membership in shared, democratic public sphere. The function of education is to help young persons fulfill whatever unique functions in life are theirs to fulfill, and to “fit them so far as it can for those common spheres which, as citizens and heirs of a joint culture, they will share with others.” (p. 4)

The assumptions behind general education for graduate education should include the vital importance of the linkage between cognitive powers and the will, between thought and the exercise of freedom. However, general education for graduate education would focus more tightly on the history of inquiry itself, the history of its institutions and on the conditions that make the most creative of inquiries possible. If general education for undergraduate education builds intellectual and social capital, general education for graduate education explores the conditions for the production and distribution of the most interesting intellectual capital. Surely, these conditions include the ability to oscillate between breadth and depth, between an ability to engage with many ideas but to understand one or more of them fully. Surely, too, these conditions include the capacity to make connections among activities. What, for example, are the relations between 20th-century theories of gravity and that greatest of post-modern American epics, Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon? Today, understanding how inquiry best works would also entail the exploration of academic and intellectual freedom.

A task of therapists is to cut the bonds that tie neurotic co-dependents. The cultural task now is the opposite: to weave bonds that tie emancipated but mutually respectful artists, humanists, social scientists and scientists. A straw in the wind: In the terrible autumn of 2001 in New York City, five murals went on display at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn. They were large charcoal drawings, nine feet high and six feet wide. The artist was an American muralist, Mordeca Glassner, whose purpose was to represent the unity of the sciences and the humanities. He had learned about science and technology by reading in the New York Public Library. Done between 1929 and 1930, they had been crated up for decades until the muralist’s family brought them to the attention of the president of Brooklyn Polytechnic, David Chang. He examined them in the company of the family and a humanistic scholar. He wants the murals in his university to tell students to place their work in a larger context. “Our students,” he says, “whether they’re engineers, computer scientists, or chemists, come to us totally focussed on their own field…Students can be too one-dimensional. We want them to think about how their work fits into society as a whole. I’m hoping,” he added, “these art works will help remind them of that.” (Seabrook, p. 26)


This article first appeared in the Sigma Xi Forum, Science, The Arts and The Humanities: Connections and Collisions, held November 8-9, 2001, Raleigh, North Carolina.  A much shorter version of this piece was published as “General Education for Graduate Education”, Chronicle of Higher Education, 1st November, 2002.