Essays: Professor Petsko and the Fate of the Humanities |
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Professor Petsko and the Fate of the Humanities

In Britain, 2010 will be remembered in the academic world as the year that the humanities finally realised they were fighting for their lives. Encouraged by bizarrely philistine government initiatives, universities of even the highest prestige began cutting subjects, while institutions of lesser stature made noises about eliminating whole departments, often adding insult to the injury by suggesting that all this old stuff was probably a bit out of date anyway. As so often when attacked, the higher realms of intellect were slow to marshal their forces: further proof of the adage that a stupid argument is the hardest kind for a bright mind to counter. The Americans are more up to speed. British defenders of humane studies who are looking for a model of counter-attacking eloquence should be sure not to miss the brilliantly argued and incisively illustrated open letter, dated October 31 2010, written for Genome Biology by Gregory A. Petsko of Brandeis University. The open letter is addressed to George M. Philip, President of the State University of New York at Albany, but he must excuse us for saying that his function in the drama is merely typical: to remove all signs of civilization from his university so that it can function unimpeded as a business school. Professor Petsko, whose primary fields are biophysics and computational biology, is the mind who matters. What, you ask, is a scientist of his eminence doing defending the humanities? Read the piece and hear him tell it. But we can give away this much of the plot: he says that taking subjects in the humanities while he was studying science helped him as a scientist. He might have added that his being a scientist makes him an important voice in defending the humanities now, as they reel under attack from within the castle walls.

Read Professor Gregory A. Petsko’s Open Letter