Anthro. prof. discusses humanities
By Kira Witkin
Published on Friday, October 14, 2011
Despite national trends emphasizing technical career-specific education, the humanities remain an essential element of schooling, Harvard University anthropology professor Arthur Kleinman said in a lecture Thursday afternoon in the Haldeman Center. Speaking to an audience of approximately 30 people that mostly included medical students and professors, Kleinman argued that while cynicism has become a natural reflex for people, studying the humanities can help brighten a person’s outlook.
“The humanities and the interpreted social sciences and the arts should be nurturing lives that resist and transcend cynicism,” Kleinman said. “The university is unique among institutions in its potential to foster, in a concerted way, orientations to living that overcome cynicism.”
We are surrounded by cynicism, Kleinman said, as evidenced by our acceptance of the steroid culture in professional sports and our acquiescence with the way sexuality is used in advertising.
Through studying the humanities, individuals can cultivate idealism and develop a critical lens to overcome negativity and improve the world, according to Kleinman.
“Most of us are not going to change the world, and yet there are things that we can do that are still important,” he said.
Such “anti-heroic actions” demonstrate the need for change and show new, legitimate ways of living, Kleinman said.
Kleinman described College President Jim Yong Kim as an “anti-hero.” Kim’s strides to improve third-world countries through disease prevention and treatment represented a departure from the World Health Organization’s usual way of tackling health problems, but left a positive impact, according to Kleinman.
“They have undertaken great actions that have changed the world,” Kleinman said of Kim and his Partners in Health co-founder, Paul Farmer.
Kim was originally slated to introduce Kleinman, a personal acquaintance, but was called away to an event in Washington, D.C., at the last minute, according to the stand-in moderator of the event.
Other “anti-heroes” Kleinman cited included Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Grant, former executive director of UNICEF.
Kleinman also discussed the importance of caregiving as opposed to emotionally-lacking medical treatment.
“When individuals participate in caregiving, there is a possibility of increasing our presence as an emotional, moral and aesthetic way of being in the world,” Kleinman said. “We come forward morally.”
Kleinman questioned what will happen to American education if more schools transition to what he called the “[Massachusetts Institute of Technology] model,” in which the majority of focus is placed on applied science, and any focus on other fields is relatively modest.
“What is the future of humanities and social sciences if we end up with most of our universities being MITs?” he said. “MIT is a great university, but it’s a certain kind of university that [Dartmouth is] not and [Harvard is] not.”
Kleinman said the prevalence of technology raises a multitude of ethical questions that must be answered through a humanity-focused lens.
Sukie Punjasthitkul, who attended the lecture to research for his job at the game design center known as Tiltfactor Laboratory, said he agred with Kleinman’s thesis that the humanities and arts needs more funding.
“I think [the lecture was] very pertinent considering everything’s so focused on economics right now,” Punjasthitkul said.
Matt Sattler ’14 said he attended the lecture on the recommendation of his anthropology professor.
“As college students, we’re constantly dealing with these questions of how do we better ourselves in society, and we do see this cynicism present on campus,” Sattler said. “We go to classes during the day, then we go to frats, and we see all these things that we wish we could change but don’t know how. This is the kind of the thing that I’ll take home and say, ‘We should take what we have and make much more out of it.’”
The lecture, “Against Cynicism: How the Humanities and the Cultivation of Our Moral Selves Sustain the Idealism of Students and Faculty,” was sponsored by the Leslie Center for the Humanities and the Ethics Institute.