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Syracuse University, College of Arts and Sciences

The Problem with Being Human

Abstract, continuous line drawings of faces.

The problem with being human is that our minds are made for a certain purpose (staying alive), but we mistake them for absolute arbiters of truth. We assume that the categories “the limits of what my mind can think” and “the truth of the universe” exactly overlap. We think in much the same way that we hear or see, i.e., within a limited range, selected to help us to survive. All that thinking has an unfortunate by-product: ego. Who is trying to survive? “I” am. The mind takes a vast unitary wholeness and selects one tiny segment of it (me, my body) and starts narrating stories from that point of view and – just like that – that entity (George!) becomes real and is (surprise, surprise) located at the exact center of the universe, and everything that is happening is happening in his movie, so to speak; it is all, somehow both “for” and “about” him. And, in this way, moral judgment arises: what is good for him is… good. And vice versa. The bear is neither good nor bad until, looking hungry, it starts walking toward George.

We are navigating, in every moment, through a terrible, beautiful, confusing landscape, with a deeply flawed navigational tool.

When I was training as a scientist, we were taught a version of scientific humility: being a good scientist included striving to be cognizant of the inherent limitations of one’s data-gathering approach. So it is, in general, if our goal is to live responsibly. Part of our job is to recognize that the tool with which we think is flawed and limited and therefore apply a modicum of humility to our quest for knowledge, by reminding ourselves that whenever we make a scale model of the world (i.e., think about it), we are making a deficient model, underestimating the complexity and richness of the actual thing.

We are navigating, in every moment, through a terrible, beautiful, confusing landscape, with a deeply flawed navigational tool.

We can induce the needed humility by observing the vast range of ways of living and thinking that have existed in the world, in the form of its history, its literature, its languages and its cultural traditions. In other words: by studying the humanities. Seeing the many other ways in which human beings have thought about themselves and interacted with one another and used language together and wielded power against one other and solved problems (and created them) helps us understand that our way is not the only way, that our natural feeling of how things should and must be is actually not natural at all, but made, by culture.

The humanities give the student a rich repository of precedent, in the form of two statements: “Things have been like this before” and “Things have been otherwise.”

I remember once, working as an engineer in Asia, walking late one night past a foundation being dug for a new hotel in Singapore. Down there, I noticed, something was…moving. As my eyes adjusted, I saw hundreds of elderly Malaysian and Chinese women, clearing the excavations of rocks, by moonlight. It was a surreal scene, but, because even the young lunkhead I was back then had some experience of culture, the moment was instantly swathed in context. The Grapes of Wrath came to mind (capitalism using the human body as currency), as did Monty Python and the Holy Grail (the king is he who is not covered in feces.) At that time, I was a budding Ayn Rand acolyte, who believed, or wanted to believe, that poverty happened to people who didn’t work hard enough. (I’d struggled through engineering school, was just learning some uncomfortable truths about class, and Rand’s thinking gave me a way to be victorious and righteous, even while losing.)

The humanities give the student a rich repository of precedent, in the form of two statements: “Things have been like this before” and “Things have been otherwise.”

So, in that moment, looking down into that excavation, the humanities were at work in me. Which vision came closest to the truth? Who better accounted for those impoverished women in that excavation, Steinbeck/ Monty Python, or Ayn Rand? In that moment, my thoughts expanded to take in the circumstances of my own life (certain hard-working family members who, despite their hard work, had been taken down by sheer bad luck) and… my worldview was suddenly clarified, as I realized that the Steinbeck/Monty Python model was more capacious; it accounted more boldly for the data and resulted in a vision of humanity that made a place for empathy and pity.

Well, that was, for me, an early, clumsy example of the humanities in action. We do a heightened version of that sort of work every day in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse: immersing our students in a rich cultural context so that she or he will be able to go out into the world and make a complicated, higher-order sense of it. The skills we are trying to teach are many, and beautifully applicable no matter where life takes us. They address a truth of which I’ve become increasingly convinced as I’ve gotten older: “Well, you never know.” Entire categories of good-bet careers have, since the time I graduated college, slid off into the ocean of irrelevance; skills that it seemed would be lucrative forever now seem ripe for demonstration in the museum of Old-Tyme Jobs. What never goes out of style, though, is clear thinking; the ability to assess a text for truth (or nonsense); the process of working one’s way toward wisdom by attempting to write something or struggling through a difficult swath of prose; learning to assess a series of events for causality; developing one’s ability to think creatively and generously about the (so-called) “Other.”

“The Other” is just us on a different day, or having arisen from a different set of circumstances, or beset by a different set of hardships.

Studying the humanities helps us correct our naturally lazy and approximate habits of projection, by putting ourselves into connection with facts. We become, in essence, more precise and alert receptors of the story the world is telling us. We train ourselves in starting out with an initial projection from within some broad reductive category (Englishman; undocumented worker; oppressor; America; hero) and then moving, through thought and study and writing, toward a more complex, particularized version of that entity. This has the effect of infusing our relation to that entity with increased openness and possibility.

In other words, when we study the humanities, we ritually remind ourselves that everybody in this world is on a continuum with us and is therefore somewhat knowable to us. There is no such thing as “the Other,” really; “the Other” is just us on a different day, or having arisen from a different set of circumstances, or beset by a different set of hardships. This impulse may not come naturally to us, but we can, through work and study, train ourselves to get better at it.

Understood this way, the study of the humanities is not a “weak” version of the sciences, or a nice field for an artsy kid to pursue until she figures out what she’s really about, but the essential thing that human beings do: We study the world in order to understand it more fully and locate ourselves more sanely within it; to make ourselves more powerful, confident and compassionate people.