American culture loves results and products–“deliverables,” to borrow current managerial parlance. (“Deliverables” is the latest entry in my ever-expanding dictionary of the buzzwords that have taken over our working lives.) When time and money are on the line, the final question tends to be “What do you have to show for that?”
That attitude puts humanities research in a tight spot. What good is curiosity for its own sake? Lawmakers who set budgets have a soft spot for (I’m tempted to say blind spot about) STEM, and too often harden their hearts to work that doesn’t point toward an obvious payoff (or ROI, if you must).
I’ve built my personal and professional life around the belief that the humanities should not have to justify themselves. A strong culture depends on at least some of its members being intellectually curious and able to pursue that curiosity, and the world is full of wonderful things that need to be appreciated and explored JUST BECAUSE THEY’RE COOL.
Even so, I’m still thrilled when I come across humanities work that takes on a life of its own, or sets off unintended public consequences of the best sort. In a new article, “Six Degrees of Voltaire,” I write about one example for the NEH’s Humanities magazine: the case of Mapping the Republic of Letters, an exploration of 16th-18th-century knowledge networks in Europe. Humanists and computer scientists–a powerful combination, as we keep seeing–joined forces to come up with visualization tools to expose patterns in the correspondence of Voltaire and other intellectual figures. Their work helped inspire the creation of the software used by journalists in the ongoing Panama Papers investigation, which is unearthing previously hidden business dealings among politicians in Europe and elsewhere.
So, in an indirect way, humanists’ curiosity about Voltaire’s letter-writing habits helped expose 21st-century corruption. Worth remembering the next time somebody asks you what humanities research is good for.