Holism: the first casualty in the climate-change war?

“In war, truth is the first casualty.” – attributed to various authors

The recently-released papal encyclical on climate change calls for a holistic approach to the challenge.

(That’s holistic and holism as in considering the problem in its broadest aspects, versus isolating any particular feature; papal authorship notwithstanding, it’s not any kind of reference to the Holy See.)

A major feature of the climate-change debate (war?) is the lack of agreement even on this point. Some (a diminishing percentage of us) argue that climate change itself is a fiction; therefore any discussion of holism is ill-founded. Others might say climate change is purely a technical problem; simply reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and the problem goes away. A larger number would see the technical issues as interwoven with social problems. The pope adds an overlay of the spiritual dimension (in his argument, far more than an overlay; he makes a strong case that the spiritual dimension is foundational)[1].

All around us,aversion to tackling climate change holistically abounds. It’s being replaced with a cafeteria-style approach to knowledge and understanding – and, for that matter, wisdom itself. To see this, we need look no further afield than the U.S. Congress. Some in that body would have us cut back on research on the physical side of the climate problem, reducing budgets for research in the geosciences – whether in DoE, in NASA, in NOAA, and at NSF. Egged on by some outside prompting, they’re happy to hope for the best. They see us as innovating our way out of our difficulties by developing renewable energy technology, making breakthroughs in battery capabilities, and building national electrical grids. In the meantime, they say, we’re buying ourselves time by converting wherever possible from dirty coal to cleaner natural gas. Others in Congress would slash federal funding (already puny) for the social sciences.

State legislatures seem to be contemplating similar measures – with humanities as the target. In a recent Washington Post op-ed piece, Kathryn Lynch, an English professor and dean of faculty affairs at Wellesley College, bemoans such threats, arguing that cutting the liberal arts undermines our cultural traditions. She starts out this way:

“It’s common to fret over unintended consequences. But what about intended consequences?

In Wisconsin, lawmakers are debating a proposed change to state law that would weaken tenure protections at the University of Wisconsin system’s schools. If it passes, faculty could be terminated whenever “such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision.” Twenty-one scholarly associations, including the American Historical Association, the Association of College & Research Libraries and the Modern Language Association, denounced this effort for its threat to shared governance and academic freedom. And, to be sure, those are threats not to be minimized. In the age of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” academic freedom is under siege.

Little is being said, however, about the law’s explicitly stated purpose: to pave the way for the elimination of faculty appointments in fields that simply do not seem worth continued investment, not because a faculty member holds an unpopular or controversial opinion but because he or she teaches in a currently unpopular field. The very point of this proposal is to give the University of Wisconsin system the flexibility to reduce staffing in specific areas.

What departments and programs will be on the chopping block? Almost certainly they will be in the humanities. A consultant who works with university governing boards was quoted disparagingly about “some of these liberal arts colleges . . . limping along with all this tenured faculty in German or some other language no one’s taking, and you can’t just move them into some other field, so you have to wait for them to retire.” Remove the obstacle of tenure, and voilà, instant budget savings. No need for those offending faculty to reach their natural retirement age. They are gone tomorrow.

From New York’s University at Albany to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, to the University of Virginia (my graduate school alma mater), where President Teresa Sullivan was under pressure to reduce or eliminate programs in “obscure” fields such as German and classics, humanities departments are being cut or threatened. The narrative is now so deep-seated and widespread that its appearance as part of the Wisconsin conflict seems practically unremarkable. Friends don’t let friends major in the humanities, where majors as a percentage of all degree recipients are down by half since their peak in the 1960s. Big thriving universities don’t need them, either.”

She goes on to argue “… a 2014 study from the Association of American Colleges and Universities that demonstrates that, during their peak earning years, graduates in the humanities and social sciences make more money than those who major in pre-professional fields. Another report, from the Association of American Medical Colleges, shows that humanities majors have higher acceptance rates to medical school than social science or natural science majors . But to focus solely on these indicators is already to concede that the chief measure of educational value can be found in the marketplace.

The humanities offer a larger and more significant value to our culture that is not captured in their pure utility. The humanities include the very fields that permit us to maintain an informed historical perspective on our lives. Without the humanities, there is no history. A German major will study Goethe; an Italian major Dante; a Russian major Tolstoy; an English major will learn the backgrounds to Chaucer (in my class) and Shakespeare (from the guy across the hall). A philosophy major will come to understand how the metaphysics of Plato and Aristotle helped set the stage for the Enlightenment. The academy has provided a welcoming home to these areas of study for hundreds of years, and they have survived under its protection. It’s worth thinking about what human culture would be without guardians who dedicate their time to preserving and passing on the lessons of history and the classics of art, music and literature.”

Dean Lynch’s theme is quite broad and far-reaching. But suppose she’d have zeroed in on the recent papal encyclical on climate change. She might well have noted that it’s the humanities that best deal with the profound matters of the spirit that Pope Francis underscored and that preoccupy us all.

Many men and women, from every walk of life, would happily rise in support of Dean Lynch. Here’s a poster child from the world of business: Richard Franke. Mr. Franke is a former chief executive officer of the John Nuveen Company (now Nuveen Investments), serving in that role for the last 22 years of his four decades with that company. He played a pivotal role in building the assets at Nuveen Investments to their present value of well over $200 billion.  In 1988, he also helped found the Chicago Humanities Festival program, with this stated purpose:

… to create opportunities for people of all ages to support, enjoy and explore the humanities. We fulfill this mission through our annual festivals, the fall Chicago Humanities Festival and the spring Stages, Sights & Sounds, and by presenting programs throughout the year that encourage the study and enjoyment of the humanities.

Our Goals are to:

  • Bring the world’s best and brightest humanists together to examine and celebrate the humanities
  • Showcase the riches of the world’s cultures and their contributions to the humanities
  • Gather together new and diverse audiences to enjoy the humanities
  • Encourage and enable teachers and students in their study of the humanities
  • Draw international attention to the importance of the humanities
  • Foster collaboration, cooperation and dialogue among the artistic, cultural and educational communities that provide life and support to the humanities

The Chicago Humanities Festival is devoted to making the humanities a vital and vibrant ingredient of daily life. We believe that access to cultural, artistic and educational opportunities is a necessary element for a healthy and robust civic environment.

The Festival has now been running for more than a quarter-century. In addition, Richard Franke and his wife have endowed Yale’s Franke Program in Science and the Humanities. In 2014, he wrote a small, highly personalized, and delightfully readable book on all this, entitled Books, Bonds, and Balance.

To conclude, it’s perhaps not surprising that attacks on holism are themselves compartmentalized. It’s nevertheless worth saying that since holism is required for so many of the challenges woven throughout our 21st-century world, holism needs to be vigorously defended. Innovation across the board – and clear thinking about the intended and unintended consequences of all that innovation – needs invigorating, not limiting.

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[1] LOTRW – both the blog and the book – argues that climate change is merely a symptom of a much broader and more complex set of relationships between us and our planet, encompassing the Earth as resource, victim, and threat.

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