A False Dichotomy
Early in the pandemic, I read a tweet so true it stopped me mid-doomscroll: STEM fields might end the pandemic, but it is the humanities that will get us through it. I’ve since seen several variations on this idea, all of them spot-on. Rather than view the disciplines in opposition to each other, a straw figure if I ever saw one, maybe we can finally start discussing how having one without the other makes for a dark, dangerous world. We are better off for both STEM and the humanities.
Stay-at-home orders and the need to socially distance mean more Americans are turning to the arts and humanities, including history. In May 2020, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicators Project surveyed Americans about their engagement with the humanities during the pandemic. They found that, since pandemic-related shutdown orders began, over 70 percent of American adults watched shows with historical content at least sometimes, and just over half of adults conducted research on a historical topic of interest. While it is unclear exactly how people identified shows with historical content—Ancient Aliens is a different beast from The Crown—or what constitutes research, it is abundantly clear that the humanities have served a vital function during a sad, confusing time.
Historians did far more than simply offer soothing entertainment or intellectual distractions. Many, especially our colleagues working in the history of science and medicine, offered nuanced accounts of plagues in world history, changes in vaccine development over time, and the material culture of masks or disinfection. Their webinars, journal articles, op-eds, and virtual exhibits helped make sense of COVID’s influence on our lives and cautioned against public health interventions that might perpetuate racism, classism, or other kinds of discrimination. The AHA has compiled much of this work in A Bibliography of Historians’ Responses to COVID–19.
At the same time, practices and concepts from the sciences have dominated our lives for nearly a year. Some colleges have turned their parking lots into COVID test sites. Live music and theater performances were forced to embrace advanced communication technologies or go dark while we wait for science to catch up with the crisis. And suddenly everyone claims to understand epidemiological concepts like R naught (the number of people that an infected person is likely to go on to infect). Basic scientific and data literacy feels more urgent and essential than ever, regardless of one’s profession.
I am increasingly uncomfortable with the all-too-common distinction between “humanities people” and “science people.” Everyone’s intellectual lives are made richer by advances in both fields—we see that time and again in this magazine. Some historians, like the forensic historians that R.E. Fulton mentions in this issue, have embraced new methodologies that draw on data sets and techniques from STEM fields. For most historians, these new methods are still novel. Using methods that we are almost all familiar with, many historians have explored why Americans might fail to comply with public health measures or have chronicled changing regulatory policies. Simultaneously, the growth of medical humanities and its recent inroads into medical education suggest that our colleagues in STEM also see the value in the kinds of questions history and the humanities train us to answer. Likewise, our experience of surviving a pandemic is made all the richer by advances in both the humanities and STEM. Binge watching The Americans certainly helped me cope with lockdown, and I’m using my skills as a historian of medicine to parse new technical reports from biotech firms like they’re archival treasures.
This winter, much of the nation faced a holiday season spent in isolation after an enormous surge in virus cases. Science has told us what we need to do—wear masks, stay home—but it is the humanities, especially history, that will help us make sense of massive disruption to our own lives.
Ashley E. Bowen is Editor of Perspectives on History. She tweets @AEBowenPhD.
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