Science is having a bit of a cultural moment right now. Have you noticed? On social media, it’s the hot new fandom: people frequently declare that they “fucking love” it, articles and photo galleries detailing new discoveries gather more likes and shares on Facebook and Tumblr than a One Direction gif set, and a recent video of an astrophysicist learning that he was right about cosmic inflation became a surprise viral hit this March. Science even has its own music videos. Clearly, science has captured our collective imaginations.
But the strongest evidence of science’s current grip on the zeitgeist is the recent rise of the science superstar: people like Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Bill Nye, and especially Neil DeGrasse Tyson, host of Fox’s hit reboot of Cosmos. Tyson and his cohort of science explicators are celebrated for their ability to communicate complex scientific concepts for a general audience, to inspire awe and curiosity before the wonders of the universe, and to combat scientific illiteracy and ignorance wherever they find it. In short, they’ve emerged as the closest our culture can still come to what is increasingly an endangered species: the public intellectual.
Somewhat paradoxically, science’s spike in popularity may stem from the weakness of its position in the culture at large. In spite of overwhelming evidence, evolution doubters and climate change deniers are still numerous, in some cases actually outnumbering those who understand and accept the facts. Scientific illiteracy really is rampant in the United States—little wonder, then, that science explicators are turned into popular heroes by those in the know. Plus, Cosmos is just great, and if Neil DeGrasse Tyson can help a few more people get their facts straight, then his elevation from astrophysicist to pop superstar is a very, very good thing.
But there’s another area of human knowledge that’s just as beleaguered as science—but unlike science, it hasn’t enjoyed any spike in mass popularity or birthed any recent superstars.
I’m talking, of course, about the humanities.
The reasons for the decline of the humanities over the past few decades are complex, but one factor seems, to me, to dominate: the cultural notion that economic value is the only kind of value that matters, and that only those things that can prove themselves in a free market by being profitable are ultimately worthwhile to society. This notion has become more and more dominant in American culture with the rightward drift in our politics and ideology, and is indirectly responsible for everything from jokes about the poor job prospects of English majors (har har) to the frequent targeting of public arts funding when the time comes to cut government budgets.
That’s a problem, and it’s one that we should all care about. The current flourishing of interest in science is fantastic, and I hope it will continue. But even if the economy never finds a way to profit from the humanities the way it has from STEM fields, there will come a day when we need the humanities. If the day ever comes when science wins its battle against scientific ignorance and everyone finally accepts the facts (and I hope it will), there will still be the question of what we as a human race want to do with those facts—what kind of a world we want to make for ourselves. That will involve a hard look at the lessons of our history. That will involve philosophy, and ethics, and rhetoric. That will involve the humanities.
But just as science illiteracy is rampant in American culture, illiteracy in the humanities is rampant as well. The sad results of this illiteracy are evident in our politics, on cable news, and in our day-to-day interactions in person and online: many (most?) people are completely incapable of thinking critically about culture, of forming complex opinions about themselves and others, and of rationally debating the subjective values that shape our world. That kind of knowledge may not currently pay in our economy—but without it, our culture will be in trouble, even if we one day manage to get our scientific facts straight.
A few months ago, Gawker’s Adam Weinstein considered the decline of the humanities and concluded that what we need may be a Neil DeGrasse Tyson of the humane arts and letters: a superstar who can explain complex concepts from philosophy, history, ethics, and literature, and also explain why it matters to the future of human civilization.
I’ve been thinking about that, and I think Weinstein is right. And I’ve got a few suggestions for who could fill the role. A lot of these people are outside the academy, and that’s by design, since hyper-specialized academics aren’t always the best explicators of their own work or of the relevance of their disciplines. But here it is—my list of 7 people who might do well as the Neil DeGrasse Tyson of the humanities.
1. John Green
John Green is perhaps best known as the author of YA sensation The Fault in Our Stars, but when he’s not writing novels that make teens cry (adults too, let’s be honest here), he spends much of his time advocating for the study of art and literature and history, and embodying the values of intelligence, inquisitiveness, and humility that, at their best, the humanities engender. As one half of the vlogbrothers with his brother Hank, John creates weekly web videos about topics ranging from the silly to the serious. He can create a video about religion, or politics, or art criticism that’s smart, engaging, and gets hundreds of thousands—sometimes millions—of views.
Green would be a natural choice to be the humanities’ Neil DeGrasse Tyson because he’s already…sort of…doing it. On the Crash Course YouTube channel, he’s hosted an entertaining and impressively comprehensive world history series, and he’s begun turning his attention to literature as well. (His wife Sarah Urist Green, meanwhile, has a popular video series about art, which is also completely awesome.) He’s got the uncanny ability to make the humanities entertaining, and to effortlessly explain why history and art and literature actually matter—in a way that everyone from teens to adults can appreciate. Plus, with TFIOS about to hit theaters, Green is on the edge of superstardom, if not there already. That’s why he tops this list.
2. Alain de Botton
Like John Green, Alain de Botton gets on this list because he’s already a popular cheerleader for the humanities. As a writer, de Botton seems a bit of a dilettante, taking on topics from religion and atheism to, most recently, the news. But no matter what he’s writing about at the moment, his project is unified by his desire to make the products of culture approachable to the general reader—and by his obvious belief that this stuff really matters: that art can be therapeutic, that Proust can change our lives, and that philosophy can console us. To Alain de Botton, the humanities aren’t just interesting or beautiful—they can make our lives better, and help us live well.
3. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Any popular explanation of the place of the humanities in our lives would be incomplete without an account of poststructuralism and critical theory. It would be like writing a science textbook without mentioning quantum mechanics. Theory changed everything, from the way we do philosophy to the way we read literature and think about human identity. There’s only one problem: theory is notoriously opaque, and difficult to explain to a general audience.
But that’s a shame, because theory is extremely relevant to our world, particularly when applied to issues like race, identity, politics, and power. And I can think of no better person to explain all this than Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Like NDT, Gates has emerged as an authoritative voice in his field, a trustworthy, almost grandfatherly figure. He’s been host of several PBS programs focusing on the African Diaspora and the use of genetic science in genealogical research. But I think it would be great if he turned his considerable talents to making race theory accessible and understandable to a wide audience, and recontextualizing American history and literature in light of the changes of perspective that have taken place in the academy. Not only would it be awesome—but I think American culture really needs it right now.
4. Roxane Gay
What about feminism, gender theory, and queer theory? These schools of critical thought have generated genuine academic superstars from time to time—I’m thinking of, say, Judith Butler, author of the influential and revolutionary Gender Trouble, and it was very nearly her name that occupied this spot on the list. But Butler, to date, hasn’t displayed an ability or interest in engaging with a general audience, and instead it’s been online feminist communities that have made feminist thought and ideology more mainstream, as notions of privilege, patriarchy, and gender bias enter the common vernacular.
In this environment, few cultural observers have been as successful as Roxane Gay. A critic, essayist, and fiction writer, Gay’s writings on politics, popular culture, gender, and identity are unfailingly intelligent, wise, and deeply empathetic. Her work is often informed by theory, but it’s never stuffy, opaque, or elitist—her writing is always lucid, accessible, and real. For Gay, these issues aren’t intellectual. They’re not academic. To read Roxane Gay is to understand why this stuff really matters. I regularly look to her on Twitter and Tumblr for her commentary on the issues of the day, from rape culture to politics to public discourse to her opinions on Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. She’s got two books out or on the way—the novel Untamed State and a collection of essays called Bad Feminist—and one gets the feeling that Roxane Gay is just getting started. She’s going to be a major voice in the years to come.
5. Martha Nussbaum
This list would be incomplete without at least one legit philosopher. Martha Nussbaum is a philosopher with specializations in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and in ethics—the kind of person who spends her days thinking about things like goodness, and justice, and law, and society. Her rooting in the thought of the classical era means that she’s thought deeply about the importance of the humane arts and sciences in civil society, and she’s even written a book about the importance of the humanities to creating responsible citizens for a functioning democracy. Her thinking also brings in newer insights about feminism and animal rights to create new definitions of justice and human flourishing. Watch below as she weaves together Aristotle and the social contract into a compelling argument for societies that practice care and recognize the dignity of all people.
6. Stephen Greenblatt
Greenblatt’s on this list because he’s an academic with an actual popular success under his belt: 2011’s bestselling but unfortunately titled The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. The nature of Greenblatt’s work also would make him a natural for this role—what he excels at is weaving together history, philosophy, and art into a compelling story about the world we live in. Which is kind of what NDT has been doing lo these many weeks with science and history: weaving it all together into a narrative that matters to viewers. Though historians may often dispute his use of historical evidence and his broad conclusions, Greenblatt is on this list for his ability to tell a good story using the material provided by the humanities, and if there were ever a Cosmos of the humanities, his approach would be an interesting one.
Does anyone know if he’s any good on camera? Hmmm. I wonder.
7. Zadie Smith
A slightly off-the-beaten path suggestion for #7—but I couldn’t leave Zadie Smith off this list. Smith is best known for being a brilliant novelist, but did you know she’s a killer literary critic too? Dashing off essays on Kafka, Nabokov, and Forster when she’s not writing her own novels, Smith is a dying breed of critic: one whose opinions on individual texts seem to be undergirded by a coherent literary philosophy, whose reviews are given to veer off into rhetorical flights of fancy and musings about the great Purposes and Meanings of Fiction. She’s one of those people for whom the Novel really matters. There’s also an X factor about her—she’s got this cult of personality thing going on, which is crucial if some level of celebrity is going to be involved in being the pop superstar of the humanities. She’s like James Wood without the stuffiness; Jonathan Franzen except not super-annoying—and with her name, my list of possible Neil DeGrasse Tysons of the humanities comes to an end.
There are many more possibilities—but those are 7 people who came to mind. I wonder if any of them would be interested in the job?
And what about you? Do you think the humanities needs its own Neil DeGrasse Tyson? If so, who would be your picks?