With the rising costs of higher education and an ever more competitive job market, liberal arts institutions across the country have been faced with defending the value of a liberal arts education versus vocational or focused university studies. The Wheaton community has actively been engaged and has responded to this debate through the Thought Leaders series. Over the past year, a number of leaders in higher education have been invited to Wheaton to give lectures and discuss the relevance and challenges of liberal arts institutions today. “I believe, and our community believes, in the enduring value of the liberal arts, and we should think carefully about how best to preserve those core commitments as we adapt to a changing world,” said President Ronald Crutcher in about his motivation behind the series.
Wednesday night, Wheaton welcomed President Lynn Pasquerella from Mount Holyoke College to deliver her lecture “Humanities, Scientism and the Right to Experience ‘Being’” as the final installment of the Thought Leaders series. President Pasquerella holds a PhD in philosophy from Brown University and her career as a philosopher and ethicist “brings a wonderful perspective to the liberal arts and their importance for society as a whole as well as individual students,” said President Crutcher.
In his introduction, he recalled hearing her give a keynote speech at the American Conference of Academic Deans and Phi Beta Kappa joint conference and knowing immediately that she was someone he wanted to have come speak at Wheaton.
Pasquerella’s lecture was a response to Steven Pinker’s essay “Science is Not Your Enemy” published last summer in the New Republic. Pinker makes “an impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians” and wonders why the humanities do not embrace the sciences but rather see them as an intrusion. The controversy in his argument lies in his defense for the term scientism, the position that science and scientific reasoning alone is the best way in which to view the world.
Pasquerella took an opposing stance to Pinker’s claims, arguing that “humanities questions are everywhere” and that we often engage with humanist thinking without realizing we are doing so. The scientific method alone is not our dominant way of approaching the world, and humanist thought allows us to confront metaphysical questions that shape our understanding. She also pointed to a fundamental contradiction in Pinker’s essay: he used a humanistic method, the essay, to make his claims, not the scientific method.
However, she did not completely denounce the value or teachings of the sciences, instead emphasizing that “science is tool to investigate metaphysical claims.” She also agreed with Pinker’s assessment that the humanities need to be progressive and find ways to connect humanist discussion with the general public. Pasquerella called for humanist thinkers to come down from the “ivory tower” of academia to engage with the outside community and make the humanities visible.
Previous speakers for the Thought Leaders series have included Swarthmore College President Rebecca Chopp, professor Jose Bowen, Skidmore College President Phil Glotzbach, and Carol Geary Schneider, President of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.