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.

Readings: Alexander Ovechkin, College Life, Five Guys Burgers, Nuclear Devastation

Here are some interesting articles I’ve read over the weekend.

(1) “Load up on Life, Not Classes” [The Tech] – a sound editorial at MIT’s student newspaper. The paragraph below is applicable to any kind of learning, and independent of where you end up going to college.

So much learning in college takes place outside of classes. By getting involved in extracurricular like clubs, sports or music groups, you learn to work with and communicate with other people — and initially, they’re usually strangers. You will learn to accomplish goals alongside people you like, but you’ll probably meet other people you don’t like. This is how the real world works, and MIT is a great place to get practice.

(2) “Alexander Ovechkin, the Mad Russian” [New York Times] – a most interesting article about the life and times of NHL’s best player, Alexander Ovechkin. In case you aren’t familiar with Ovechkin:

In 2005-6, he was the N.H.L. rookie of the year, scoring 52 goals, tied for third most in the league. In the 2007-8 and 2008-9 seasons he led the league in goals, with 65 and 56, and won back-to-back M.V.P. awards. He has been at, or near, the top of the scoring chart this year and is on track for another 50-goal season.

On Ovechkin’s most memorable, absolutely insane goal:

Ovie doesn’t just score often, he scores memorably. Against Phoenix in January of his rookie year, there was what is now known simply as the Goal. Going one on one against the Coyotes’ defenseman Paul Mara, he got knocked down and landed on his back but kept the puck on the end of his stick and, as he slid backward, flung it over his head and into the net. This magical feat was viewed so often on YouTube that Caps officials estimate ticket sales went up 15 percent as a direct result.

The following paragraph profiles other Ovechkin goals, and I’ve linked to the respective YouTube videos below:

There are now so many celebrated Ovie goals on YouTube that connoisseurs can argue over them like stamp collectors comparing the 1840 British Penny Black, say, with the 1868 Franklin Z-Grill. Which is better? The goal against Buffalo in December 2008, when he slipped the puck around a defender’s legs, fell and then, while sliding on his stomach, whipped a shot through the goalie’s leg pads? Or the one against Detroit in January 2009, when he dragged the puck between his own legs, faked a backhander and then drilled a shot into the top of the net? What about the stupefying goal against Montreal the following month, when, catching the Canadiens on a bad line change, Ovechkin spun 360 degrees, passed the puck to himself off the boards, got knocked on his side and while skidding across the goal mouth lifted a shot over the goalie’s outstretched leg? Against the New York Rangers in early February, he scored a one-hander, pushing the puck between the skates of the defenseman Michal Rozsival, picking it up on the other side and then stabbing it with one arm past the Rangers’ goalie, Henrik Lundqvist.

Also of interest is this TSN video highlighting Ovechkin’s top ten goals.

I think what makes Ovechkin appealing to the hockey fan (not just a Capitals fan) is because he’s extremely approachable and personal:

Unlike most Russian players, who are paired with a Russian-speaking minder when they come to the N.H.L., Ovie insisted on an English-speaking roommate, and his English has become steadily better (though he does refer to the Verizon Center’s corporate suites as “suits”). In January, he was made captain of the team, in part because he’s such a presence in the locker room. He seldom ducks an interview, a chance to appear in a commercial or a request to make an appearance for a charity. According to Nate Ewell, the Capitals’ director of media relations, it’s hard to persuade Ovie to say no to anything. Off ice, he enjoys full rock-star privileges. He lives in an immense pad and markets his own line of Ovie-wear. He enjoys techno-pop, fast cars, beautiful women, torn Dolce & Gabbana jeans and loud parties.

The entire NYT Magazine piece is a pleasure to read, and I encourage you to check it out.

(3) “How I Did It: Jerry Murrell, Five Guys Burgers and Fries” [Inc Magazine] – an excellent interview with Jerry Murrel, founder of Five Guys, one of the best burger joints in the United States. Three quotable gems from the interview (on soliciting reviews, creating ownership in the company, and how the name Five Guys came to be):

  1. We have never solicited reviews. That’s a policy. Yet we have hundreds of them. If we put one frozen thing in our restaurant, we’d be done. That’s why we won’t do milk shakes. For years, people have been asking for them! But we’d have to do real ice cream and real milk.
  2. We try to make kids feel ownership in the company. Boys hate to smile. It’s not macho. And it’s definitely not macho to clean a bathroom. But if the auditor walks in and the bathroom isn’t clean, that crew just lost money. Next thing he knows, the guy who was supposed to clean the bathroom has toilet paper all over his car and a potato in his tailpipe.
  3. Our lawyer said “You need a name.” I had four sons — Matt, Jim, Chad are from my first marriage, and Ben from my second to Janie, who has run our books from Day One. So I said, “How about Five Guys?” Then we had Tyler, our youngest son, so I’m out! Matt and Jim travel the country visiting stores, Chad oversees training, Ben selects the franchisees, and Tyler runs the bakery.

(4) “Dark Element” [Walrus Magazine] – a heartbreaking account of Zhovti Vody, a Ukrainian prairie city (built in the Soviet era to supply ore for nuclear weapons) on its deadly legacy: cancer and devastation. Still, life must go on, as this poignant photo essay demonstrates.