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Remembering Oliver Sacks and the importance of the humanities

Ross_Angus/Flickr

Ross_Angus/Flickr

The death of Oliver Sacks, acclaimed physician and author on Aug. 30 brought to end the life of a man who was much more than a one-word job title. He was a Renaissance man whose limitless creativity and outstanding ability to delve into the unknown propelled his will to discover and inform. Whether retelling his natural love of science and his boyhood love of elements on the periodic table – something that continued to captivate him into his old age – or his writings recalling the hallucinations he and his patients experienced, Sacks’ adventures extended well beyond the professional realm.

What is equally sad is the death of what Sacks came to represent. If we are to understand Sacks’ life more as a set of ideas or a series of concepts and less as a set of core principles that he came to embody, one could then track the direction of these ideas. Perhaps the thing that set Sacks apart from his contemporaries was the way he blended his love for science and the humanities. His primary way of communicating his discoveries and interests was through the written word. Sacks became a beloved writer at The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books,  institutions that are at the pinnacle of literature and scholarship.

We also must understand that aside from being published, let alone being considered a scholar, such forms of communication are vital for interpersonal interactions. This issue is not about academic superiority or the practicality of one versus the other. The issue is the way the humanities are perceived, especially at the college level, and the importance of not underestimating or garnering low expectations for students who choose to pursue such fields of study. From 2009-2011, there was a seven percent drop in the number of students who majored in the humanities. According to The Atlantic, “Since 2009, funding for the arts and humanities has decreased around the world.”

There are several explanations for this drop. There has been a lack of funding for history, literature and the arts at the federal and state level. Much of this is connected with political criticism of the field particularly on the part of Republican governors, ones who want more of an emphasis on a job and less on the actual learning experience attained at the collegiate level.

It’s worth looking at a school such as Stanford. Forty-five percent of its faculty is within the English Department compared with only 15 percent of the student body. At Harvard, the number of English majors has dropped by 20 percent over the last decade. What is also taking place here is the rise of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. The federal government spent $3 billion on STEM programs in 2014. If the competition to the humanities is not coming from the federal level, then it is certainly coming in the form of private donations. This year, Harvard received a $400 million donation from John Paulson for the college’s engineering school. The unfortunate reality is that these donations are next to impossible for the humanities and social science departments.

College has become more and more about job preparation – or the next step – rather than motivating the student to be passionate about learning. It makes no sense to worry about a job for four years – a time that should be spent thinking about anything but a job.

Michuko Katutani of The New York Times said in her appraisal of Sacks that, “Dr. Sacks depicted such people not as scientific curiosities but as individuals who become as real to us as characters.” They appear in novels and other works of fiction and yet individuals come to identify with them and link certain traits of theirs with certain traits of their own more than they would another fellow human being. For Sacks, the sciences and humanities were not mutually exclusive, they went hand-in-hand. Sacks was a man who described his scientific experiments and discoveries by employing the written word. In his book “The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat,” he discusses several case histories, one of which focuses on a man with visual agnosia. Sacks’ deep understanding of the human consciences emboldened him to seek an adventurous life.

As a journalism student, I spend a fair amount of time reading and writing. These are basic skills that seem to be taken for granted. It is hard to perform well in a job interview without communicating well. Studying the humanities builds these skills – skills which are far from impractical. In the words of Oliver Sacks, “I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.”

Issac Simon can be reached at isimon@umass.edu.

 

Comments
One Response to “Remembering Oliver Sacks and the importance of the humanities”
  1. Jason Price says:

    I appreciate the notion of going to college to learn, as opposed to prepare for a job–at the same time as a job is what is really meant at the end of all this, let’s not forget, but I don’t understand exactly the Humanities emphasis in this article. Yes, Sacks wrote books on neurological cases for the general public, but this qualifies as Humanities work? I really know nothing about what Sacks said about the Humanities, if he did much at all. I do know, from reading Awakenings, he had a good grasp of philosophy, and at times took it a little too far I thought. Regardless, I’ll miss him, even with that somewhat annoying habit (which I used to think of as a “kind pompousness”) of his of using scientific words and terms in these books that normal people wouldn’t know, without explaining them, and the like.

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