Souter stresses humanities in U.S.

Brian Trimboli Oct 12, 2014

“We cannot give short shrift to the humanities and social sciences,” retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter told a standing-room only McConomy Auditorium last Friday.

Souter delivered his lecture, “The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation,” as part of the John and Mary Lou Lehoczky Lecture Series in the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Souter was brought to Carnegie Mellon with the help of the university’s Center for International Relations and Politics (CIRP) and the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, an organization that supports humanities research and education in the U.S., accoding to its website.

Souter was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1990 by President George H. W. Bush after a career in the state courts of New Hampshire, and retired from the Supreme Court in 2009.

After University President Subra Suresh introduced him, Souter, a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, made a case to listeners that the U.S. should put greater stress on the humanities and social sciences as the foundation of education.

“A lot of this is going to be obvious,” Souter said about the points in his lecture. “But I want the obvious to be on the table.”

Souter opened his lecture with a story about William Howard Taft, the 27th president of the United States. Taft, Souter said, was able to think about problems in different ways — one of the main benefits that Souter said a liberal arts education provides.

Souter used a quote by poet John Donne as the first piece of evidence in his lecture: “No man is an island.”

Souter pointed out how different experts in different fields of the humanities — from psychology to theology — would interpret the quote, saying that “Your perspective is going to affect how much you look at the question, just as much as it affects how much you look at the answer.”

Throughout his lecture, Souter stressed the importance of different perspectives. An education in the humanities, Souter said, gives people the ability to look at a question or problem from different angles, with different perspectives.

Julia Eddy, a junior decision science major, agreed with Souter’s emphasis on the humanities. “I think it was really valuable. I used to not put a lot of value in the humanities,” Eddy, who recently switched her major from electrical and computer engineering to decision science, said. “Since I just switched my major from engineering to the humanities, the lecture really resonated with me.”

Sophomore mathematics major Ryan LaPré had similar thoughts about Souter’s lecture. “In general, I agree with Souter in that a vital part of the future of education should focus on the intersection of a social sciences-based creativity, as well as some application of technology,” LaPré said. “Especially at a school like CMU, where we promote this mindset in our curriculum and programs.”

Souter closed his lecture by comparing the U.S. to China, which recently surpassed the U.S. as the world’s largest economy, according to the International Monetary Fund. China, Souter said, is laying a foundation in humanities for a future of smart economic decisions while the U.S. lags behind.