At Gawker — yes, Gawker — Adam Weinstein asks a great question. Neil DeGrasse Tyson has done wonders to popularize science. What about the humanities? Weinstein:
The National Endowment for the Humanities is more endangered than NASA. Funding for humanities research amounts to about 1/200th of the federal funding dedicated to scientific and engineering scholarship.
Yet science has Tyson, whose show airs on the same channel as American Idol. More than that, it has Bill Nye and Brian Greene, all of whom stand on the shoulders of Sagan and Richard Feynman. The pure and applied sciences have always had champions who can stir up national pride and, in so doing, strengthen our civic education and bolster our economy.
Imagine if a philosopher or historian or literature professor could show mass-TV audiences the inner workings of things that are not science—from the assumptions of economics to the greatness of the great books to the sociocultural complications of canon-building to the cultural coding of Duck Dynasty. Imagine if they factchecked movies like Spiderman and Gravity for ethical and intellectual lapses with the geeky gusto that Tyson displays in factchecking the films’ scientific content. Imagine if we live-tweeted these professors’ lively, decidedly untraditional lectures and Q&As and documentaries the way we did with Tyson’s.
I think this is a great idea, but I can easily imagine why it seems very difficult to do at this point. The humanities themselves, at the academic level, have become highly politicized and contentious. Second, we lack a Kenneth Clark figure who can speak broadly and with authority and personality for the humanities. The clip above is the introduction — more like an overture — to his popular 1969 TV series Civilisation. By that he means Western civilization, of course, and one would not be wrong to find his vision somewhat dated. Nevertheless, his is a great example of popularizing the humanities. I have faith that it could still be done, that there is an audience for this kind of thing. But it would have to be taken out of the hands of academics and culture warriors of the Left and the Right. Not sure how you do that, but what a thing worth doing!
Thoughts, anybody? Do we have a Neil DeGrasse Tyson/Kenneth Clark figure for the humanities, and I just don’t know about him or her?