Yo-Yo Ma makes us late for dinner

March 4, 2009

“Aaaaaggghhhhh”, said P-, “how I hate those humanities people ! I am so glad I did Physics !” What prompted this outburst was emerging from a three hour performance in a Harvard church, ravenously hungry and bad tempered. It was called “Witness” and billed as the contribution of the Harvard Humanities to this year’s celebration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It sounded like it would be good – it featured Yo-Yo Ma, Toni Morrison, and the dancer Damian Woetzel. The trouble is it also featured a long sequence of Harvard Professors pontificating. For every three minutes of bliss with Yo-Yo you had to sit through seven minutes of somebody reading an essay in Hungarian, or blethering on about the “exigent materialities of our aspirational constructions”. Depressingly, even Toni Morrison was deathly dull. She read from her own work in a monotone, and added a twenty minute uninteresting reminiscence about the transcendent experience of watching slam poets perform in the Louvre. Morrison is a Saint of course, so even though she spoke at about eight words a minute, one felt obliged to appear captivated.

It struck me that as scientists in Universities, we are both the academics and the practitioners, whereas in the humanities this is two different things. There are those that create and those that interpret. The interpreters are very clever and reside in ancient and prestigious institutions like Harvard. They feel important, and act like they are needed to validate what creative artists do. The truth is different. Creation is crucial to our wellbeing; those best at it are almost magical beings, and are justifiably adored. Humanities Professors are needed to teach our children, thank you very much, but otherwise add nothing of value. They think they are a priesthood, but really they are just spongers, making a living out of somebody else’s talent. As they are genuinely clever but have nothing interesting to say, hot air expands to fill the vacuum.

Provocative enough ?