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Adding It All Up : There's more to Life Than Math

October 13, 1985|DAVID PIERPONT GARDNER | David Pierpont Gardner is president of the University of California

California Humanities Week, today through Oct. 19, commemorates the 10th anniversary of the California Council for the Humanities, an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The council's goals include strengthening the role of the humanistic disciplines in contemporary society and supporting community activities that increase awareness of California history and culture. The following is excerpted from the 1984 California Humanities Lecture, "The Humanities and Our Future," by David Pierpont Gardner, president of the University of California:

The conditions of contemporary life, I'm convinced, make education more important than ever--and the same is true for the humanities. Humanists and those who value humanistic knowledge now have two great opportunities: to bring about lasting and vigorous reform in our schools, and to see that the humanities are a strong and persuasive voice in that movement.

There's one thing we don't need to do. We don't need to save the humanities. If they have something to contribute to modern life--and they indisputably do--they'll survive and, in fact, thrive.

It will be uphill work, however. I was reminded of that recently by a television commercial. A young boy, being driven to school by his father in the family's sleek new car, asks morosely why he has to study math. The answer is immediate and enthusiastic. "Don't you realize, son," the father says, "that this car couldn't have been built without mathematics? Or that a computer is what keeps the engine in top running condition?" He is so eloquent that by the time they reach the schoolyard the boy is convinced. "OK, Dad," he says as he gets out of the car, "I understand why I have to study math. Now why do I have to study Latin?"

It isn't surprising that the commercial closes with the son's question, not with the father's response--assuming he has one. And it ends that way not just because the commercial is devoted to selling cars rather than the Great Books. As a society, we're not nearly as certain about why it's important to study the humanities as we are about why it's important to study mathematics. (It should be noted that we don't study mathematics very well either.) But anything's possible, and perhaps the car manufacturer will make another commercial, one in which the father pauses to answer his son's second question.

Perhaps the answer will include some reference to the importance of understanding where we come from and what it means for where we are going. Perhaps it will say something about the value of welcoming several perspectives on issues of interest to us and not just a perspective limited to our own time and place. Perhaps it will suggest that there are many languages like Latin, the language of a great civilization that no longer exists in a political sense but that nonetheless informs our language, customs, laws, religions and values; the language of science and mathematics; the language of manners; the language of art, both visual and performing; the language of DNA, the periodic table of elements and elementary particles, and that the whole point of education is to teach us as many of those languages as possible. If I had to answer the boy's question, that's what I would say.

The national dialogue on education must continue so our heritage in all its dimensions, informed by what we call the humanities, will enliven our children's education, enhance our lives and invoke the past to improve our understanding of the present and thus assure our future.

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