Why we need the humanities more than ever, by the President of Yale

Students walk on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, October 7, 2009.  REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton (UNITED STATES) - RTXPEBX

The Yale campus: 'We develop our emotional intelligence through the humanities' Image: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Peter Salovey
President, Yale University
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In our complex and interconnected world, we need leaders of imagination, understanding, and emotional intelligence—men and women who will move beyond polarizing debates and tackle the challenges we face. To cultivate such leaders, we must value and invest in the humanities.

I am a psychologist by training, and I study human emotions. Art, literature, history, and other branches of the humanities are vital for developing our emotional intelligence—essential to understanding ourselves and others. They help us grapple with uncertainty, understand complexity, and empathize.

Consider what happens when you read a novel. Engrossed in the narrative, you are invited to imagine the world from a character’s perspective. You think about the interplay between a person’s desires and her actions. When you listen to music, go to the theater, or visit a museum, you have an emotional response—one that connects you with other people and new perspectives.

We develop our emotional intelligence—and learn skills of empathy, imagination, and understanding—through the humanities. These skills, if cultivated, enable leaders to respond successfully to challenges and opportunities in every sector. Our scientists are better at their work if they read literature; our diplomats and our generals are more effective when they understand languages; our data scientists are able to think beyond algorithms when they experience art and music.

Around the world, we can see the gains of globalization. Debates continue, however, about how to promote more inclusive and equitable growth, embracing a diversity of peoples and cultures and respecting the environment.

The humanities must be part of this conversation. Leadership on these difficult issues demands understanding more than the bottom line; it requires an appreciation of all that makes life meaningful and complete. As Lei Zhang, a successful business leader and Yale alumnus, said, “The humanities are fundamental to reason. Isolating data and technology from the humanities is like trying to swim without water; you can have all the moves of Michael Phelps, but you still won’t end up getting anywhere.” The humanities provide the context—the possibility of real understanding—for all that the future promises.

Reaching across divides

To harness the extraordinary power of the humanities, we must ensure they are widely accessible. Institutions like my own, as guardians of some of the world’s greatest cultural treasures, must work to share the joy and wonder of the humanities with the public. Otherwise, potential leaders of the future will lose out on the opportunity to learn from the humanities.

Last year my colleague and friend, Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust, wrote eloquently about the importance of scholarship and education in addressing inequality. Cultural and educational institutions can also make the world a more equal and inclusive place through the transformative power of the humanities.

I recently had the privilege of touring the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. As I walked through this remarkable space, I was able to see, hear, and imagine the story of African Americans in the United States. I was particularly drawn to an exhibit about the influence of black Americans on music. My hobby and passion is bluegrass music, so I was fascinated by the exchange between African-American blues musicians and old-time Appalachian music played by Scotch-Irish immigrants. Understanding this influence made me listen to music I knew well with new ears—hearing cadences and rhythms I had never heard before.

Museums make such moments of emotional and intellectual awakening possible. Today, technology can help us share these moments even more widely. Scholars at Yale, for instance, have partnered with the Library of Congress to launch Photogrammar, a website that allows users anywhere in the world to peruse, search, and visualize 170,000 photographs created as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal. These iconic images capture the raw emotion of people living through the Great Depression. In another project, Transcribe@Yale, we are “crowdsourcing” the transcription of documents in the Kilpatrick Collection of Cherokee Manuscripts, housed at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, so we can understand and preserve aspects of Oklahoma Cherokee culture that would otherwise be lost.

Yale Photogrammar - Photos from the FSA organized

Despite the promise of technology to connect people, too often we remain isolated in our own narrow circles. Joining the humanities with new digital tools can help us reach across divides—through time and space—and allow more people to explore our rich cultural resources.

'The heritage of the human experience is impoverished'

The problems we face today are grave. Poverty, disease, climate change, and threats to national and global security test even our greatest leaders. At such times, it may seem prudent to forget about art, music, literature, and languages.

We have been here before. In 1939, as war raged in Europe and Asia, Yale President Charles Seymour worried that the liberal arts would be neglected. Although the public did not think they were “useful,” Seymour was convinced the humanities were indispensable. “Without them,” he wrote movingly, “the heritage of the human experience is impoverished.”

Now, as then, we must value the humanities even in the midst of conflict and division. Only through the humanities can we prepare leaders of empathy, imagination, and understanding—responsive and responsible leaders who embrace complexity and diversity. Our institutions must also play a leadership role by making the treasures of the humanities widely available. It is our responsibility to prepare the leaders of tomorrow, and to elevate and protect “the heritage of the human experience” that we all share.

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