Gregory Petsko: On Defense of the Humanities

Gregory Petsko’s open letter to George M. Philip, President of the State University of New York At Albany, is one of the most compelling pieces of writing I’ve read this year. The background: On October 1, George M. Philip, announced that the French, Italian, classics, Russian and theater programs at SUNY Albany were getting the axe.

Petsko, a professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Brandeis University, decided to respond. In his open letter, he writes with tact and eloquence about the importance of the humanities for any university, and how Philip’s decision was a reprehensible act. Titled “A Faustian Bargain,” Petsko makes references to Machiavelli, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Dostoyevesky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and of course, Goethe’s Faust.

First, why do humanities classes have low enrollment? Petsko argues:

You see, the reason that humanities classes have low enrollment is not because students these days are clamoring for more relevant courses; it’s because administrators like you, and spineless faculty, have stopped setting distribution requirements and started allowing students to choose their own academic programs – something I feel is a complete abrogation of the duty of university faculty as teachers and mentors. You could fix the enrollment problem tomorrow by instituting a mandatory core curriculum that included a wide range of courses.

I went to Georgia Tech, where the primary focus is on engineering and sciences. Most of my classes were in engineering, science, and math. But the most stimulating classes I took were in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts. It was in an English II course that I read Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Thomas More’s Utopia. One of the best courses I took was in the Public Policy department, PST 3127: “Science, Technology, & Human Values.” This was a required course for all engineering undergraduates, with the professor choosing the theme for the course. I took a course with Hans Klein, whose course was titled “The Contemporary Environment.” It was there that I got a new appreciation for Brave New World (I re-read it), learned about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, learned about media criticism through Noam Chomksy’s Manufacturing Consent, and so much more (PDF of the syllabus for the course). Again, this was a required course, but what I learned from that course is still with me today. The point is this: I enjoyed these mandatory courses so much, that I wanted to take other courses totally unrelated to my major. My senior year at Georgia Tech, I took a couple of courses in the Literature, Communication, and Culture department at Georgia Tech. The course that really stands out is LCC 3518: “Literary and Cultural Postmodernism,” where we read T.S. Eliot’s poetry, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and watched a number of films. In this course we also read the first hypertext story, Michael Joyce’s Afternoon, a story. If I didn’t have exposure to these courses, my education would have been, simply, incomplete.

Moving on…

I love Petsko’s reference to one of the greatest novels ever written, The Brothers Karamazov (it’s one of the most challenging books I’ve ever read). The reference to The Grand Inquisitor is particularly brilliant:

Young people haven’t, for the most part, yet attained the wisdom to have that kind of freedom without making poor decisions. In fact, without wisdom, it’s hard for most people. That idea is thrashed out better than anywhere else, I think, in Dostoyevsky’s parable of the Grand Inquisitor, which is told in Chapter Five of his great novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In the parable, Christ comes back to earth in Seville at the time of the Spanish Inquisition. He performs several miracles but is arrested by Inquisition leaders and sentenced to be burned at the stake. The Grand Inquisitor visits Him in his cell to tell Him that the Church no longer needs Him. The main portion of the text is the Inquisitor explaining why. The Inquisitor says that Jesus rejected the three temptations of Satan in the desert in favor of freedom, but he believes that Jesus has misjudged human nature. The Inquisitor says that the vast majority of humanity cannot handle freedom. In giving humans the freedom to choose, Christ has doomed humanity to a life of suffering.

That single chapter in a much longer book is one of the great works of modern literature. You would find a lot in it to think about. I’m sure your Russian faculty would love to talk with you about it – if only you had a Russian department, which now, of course, you don’t.

You can read The Grand Inquisitor chapter at Project Gutenberg (or download it for free on the iPad/Kindle).

Petsko isn’t shy about calling out George Philip. Holding the meeting at an unconvenient time to announce the budget cuts was sleezy:

And you called that meeting for Friday afternoon on October 1st, when few of your students or faculty would be around to attend. In your defense, you called the timing ‘unfortunate’, but pleaded that there was a ‘limited availability of appropriate large venue options.’ I find that rather surprising. If the President of Brandeis needed a lecture hall on short notice, he would get one. I guess you don’t have much clout at your university.

The reference to Divine Comedy:

It seems to me that the way you went about it couldn’t have been more likely to alienate just about everybody on campus. In your position, I would have done everything possible to avoid that. I wouldn’t want to end up in the 9th Bolgia (ditch of stone) of the 8th Circle of the Inferno, where the great 14th century Italian poet Dante Alighieri put the sowers of discord. There, as they struggle in that pit for all eternity, a demon continually hacks their limbs apart, just as in life they divided others.

The Inferno is the first book of Dante’s Divine Comedy, one of the great works of the human imagination. There’s so much to learn from it about human weakness and folly. The faculty in your Italian department would be delighted to introduce you to its many wonders – if only you had an Italian department, which now, of course, you don’t.

That refrain: “which now, of course, you don’t” would repeat five times in the letter. I found its usage particularly powerful.

Petsko is spot-on that universities aren’t just about discovering new knowledge:

As for the argument that the humanities don’t pay their own way, well, I guess that’s true, but it seems to me that there’s a fallacy in assuming that a university should be run like a business. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be managed prudently, but the notion that every part of it needs to be self-supporting is simply at variance with what a university is all about. You seem to value entrepreneurial programs and practical subjects that might generate intellectual property more than you do ‘old-fashioned’ courses of study. But universities aren’t just about discovering and capitalizing on new knowledge; they are also about preserving knowledge from being lost over time, and that requires a financial investment.

This part resonated with me:

Of all the courses I took in college and graduate school, the ones that have benefited me the most in my career as a scientist are the courses in classics, art history, sociology, and English literature. These courses didn’t just give me a much better appreciation for my own culture; they taught me how to think, to analyze, and to write clearly. None of my sciences courses did any of that.

While I wouldn’t say that my science courses didn’t taught me how to analyze, I would say that the courses in humanities have made me a better thinker.

Finally, I think this was the most important passage in the entire letter:

Science unleavened by the human heart and the human spirit is sterile, cold, and self-absorbed. It’s also unimaginative: some of my best ideas as a scientist have come from thinking and reading about things that have, superficially, nothing to do with science. If I’m right that what it means to be human is going to be one of the central issues of our time, then universities that are best equipped to deal with it, in all its many facets, will be the most important institutions of higher learning in the future.


In the conclusion of the letter, the parable of Faust and the devil comes to light. I hope you find the time to read the entire letter.

2 thoughts on “Gregory Petsko: On Defense of the Humanities

  1. This makes me wish there were more Gregory Petskos in the world. And yes, people should read the entire letter. It’s well-written, a skill Petsko probably picked up in an English course. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing, and Happy Thanksgiving!

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