Brain Pickings

George Lucas, John Lithgow, and Other Luminaries on How the Humanities Make Us Human


“Measurable is what we know, and the immeasurable is what the heart searches for. The humanities are the immeasurable.”

Ray Bradbury famously argued for reading as a prerequisite for democracy. “Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science,” Wordsworth wrote. In her superb 2013 McGill commencement address, philosopher Judith Butler championed the value of the humanities as a tool of tolerance. And yet the humanities have slipped into endangered academic species status — so says a major new plea of a report titled to Congress from the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, titled The Heart of the Matter, which opens with a sense of unequivocal urgency:

As we strive to create a more civil public discourse, a more adaptable and creative workforce, and a more secure nation, the humanities and social sciences are the heart of the matter, the keeper of the republic — a source of national memory and civic vigor, cultural understanding and communication, individual fulfillment and the ideals we hold in common. They are critical to a democratic society and they require our support.

Accompanying the report is this beautiful short film, a collection of luminaries’ testimonials for the value and immeasurable impact of the humanities both in our individual journey toward understanding the meaning of life and our collective odyssey toward better understanding one another and our place in the universe. Selected highlights below.

From director George Lucas:

The sciences are the “how,” and the humanities are the “why” — why are we here, why do we believe in the things we believe in. I don’t think you can have the “how” without the “why.”

From architect Billie Tsien:

Measurable is what we know, and the immeasurable is what the heart searches for. The humanities are the immeasurable. … If we leave behind the humanities and see it as unimportant, I think we’ll lose our ability to dream.

From masterful storyteller Ken Burns, revered voice of history:

The humanities are what Thomas Jefferson meant when he said “the pursuit of happiness” — this is not a pursuit of objects in a marketplace of things; this is the pursuit of ideas in a marketplace of our future.

From actor John Lithgow:

Without the humanities, life doesn’t have life — that’s the heart of the matter.

Complement with Dorion Sagan, son of Carl, and his eloquent case for why science and philosophy need each other.

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