2111th Stated Meeting | March 30, 2023 | In-Person event at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and Virtual Event | Morton L. Mandel Conversation
A decade has passed since the publication of The Heart of the Matter, the influential report on the value of the humanities by the Academy’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences. What has happened to the humanities over the past ten years, and what might we do to better support the humanities in the future?
The 2111th Stated Meeting featured remarks from Danielle Allen, a member of the Commission that authored The Heart of the Matter, who reflected on the humanities as a historical and contemporary practice in an age of digital superabundance. The meeting also included a conversation between Allen and arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown about the practical applications for the humanities, what works and what doesn’t for asserting their value, and their role in contemporary political debates and culture wars. Academy President David W. Oxtoby offered introductory remarks. An edited version of the presentations and discussion follows.
A video of the event is available on our website: Event Page
David W. Oxtoby
David W. Oxtoby is President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was elected to the Academy in 2012.
Good evening. I am very glad to welcome everyone who has joined us tonight. I would like to begin by acknowledging that today’s event is taking place on the traditional and ancestral land of the Massachusett, the original inhabitants of what is now known as Boston and Cambridge. We pay respect to the people of the Massachusett tribe, past and present, and honor the land itself, which remains sacred to the Massachusett people.
It is my distinct privilege as president of the American Academy to call to order our 2111th Stated Meeting. Tonight’s conversation is made possible by the generosity of the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Foundation. Mort Mandel’s transformative gift was made with the vision that Academy members would come together across disciplines and distance to grapple with big issues. Appropriately, the Mandel Foundation is also a champion of the humanities, promoting them as foundational to human aspiration and human experience. We are grateful to the Mandel Foundation for their continued support.
Ten years ago, the American Academy published The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation as the culmination of the work of our Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, under the leadership of Richard Brodhead and John Rowe. The Commission was answering a bipartisan call for recommendations to support and strengthen these areas of knowledge.
The Commission’s impact was a direct result of the extraordinary work of the fifty-three commissioners who worked tirelessly to spread its message from Maine, to Maryland, to California, and beyond. We thank the Mellon Foundation and Carnegie Corporation of New York for their support of that work.
None of us need reminding how much has changed in this country in the ten years since The Heart of the Matter was published – and the health of the humanities is no exception. But what has not changed is this Academy’s commitment to and belief in the essentiality of the humanities to our society and to ourselves.
We are proud to center the humanities in all our project areas, ensuring that the principles of humanities disciplines and leading scholars inform our work. We are proud to explore the humanities through dedicated projects like the recent Dædalus volume on “The Humanities in American Life” and our long-standing Humanities Indicators, a nationally recognized and respected source of information on the state of the humanities across education, the workforce, research, and public life.
And we are proud to celebrate excellence in the humanities disciplines through the remarkable members elected to this Academy each year. Those members include our Membership Secretary Earl Lewis, who just last week received the National Humanities Medal from President Biden. Earl is here with us today. Congratulations, Earl.
Among the skills the humanities encourage is the ability to reflect on the past with new eyes. Tonight is an opportunity to employ that skill to take stock of an Academy project and consider what has changed in ten years – what we thought then, what we know now, and what we might do to secure a strong future for the humanities going forward.
We are lucky to be joined tonight by two invaluable humanists, who will lead us in that work. Danielle Allen is a member of the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences and cochair of a more recent Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship. As a classicist, public intellectual, and director of the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Ethics, her work is firmly rooted in the humanities. She was elected to this Academy in 2009. Danielle will open our event with a reflection on the humanities as a historical and contemporary practice in this digital age.
Following those remarks, Danielle will be joined by Jeffrey Brown, a Peabody Award–winning journalist and Senior Correspondent and Chief Arts Correspondent for PBS NewsHour. Jeff most recently served as a member of the Academy’s Commission on the Arts. He and Danielle will lead a conversation on the practical applications of the humanities and their role in our contemporary political culture. We have reserved time for questions from our audience and hope you will all contribute at that point. Now, please join me in welcoming Danielle Allen.
Danielle Allen is the James Bryant Conant University Professor and Director of the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. She was elected to the American Academy in 2009.
Good evening. It is lovely to see you all, and it is always so special to be in this space.
We delivered The Heart of the Matter report a decade ago, when in some sense we were on the precipice of radical change in America – in our society and culture. We didn’t know then that it was the case. We need now to face this fact of radical change as we try to imagine the health of the humanities for the coming decade.
Before I turn to that theme, though, I want to take us back to the core experiences of the humanities. Each one of us is like a thesaurus, a treasury full of all the moments when the humanities lit up life for us. I would like to share a story that was pivotal in my own journey – a story about the power of the humanities.
In my sophomore year at Princeton, spring semester, 1991, I wandered into a class on ancient Athenian democracy. The professor was Josiah Ober. Some of you may know him. He is now at Stanford. To this day, he is one of the best teachers I ever had. He came from Montana with his hiking boots and his Western spirit, full of good humor and jollity, and he taught his class with a great degree of energy. I found the material fascinating.
We were studying the speeches that were given in Athenian courtrooms, both for prosecution and defense. As I was reading the speeches, I, this kid from southern California, was transported to another world. But there was something bugging me about those speeches. I couldn’t figure out quite what it was. It took me about half of the semester to figure it out. I know that’s how long it took because it was only at the point when we were starting to open the classroom windows and there was a bit of Princeton spring air coming in that I finally got it. I put up my hand, and I asked, “Professor, did the Athenians not use prisons?” In all of these speeches from the courts, in the pages and pages we were reading, never did they mention prisons.
There I was, a kid who had grown up in southern California in the 1970s and 1980s, and one of the most important features of the world around me was that the number of prisons was increasing. I didn’t realize that, as a young person, I had absorbed an incredibly important fact about my world. There I was as a young person in a history class reporting to my professor that I had a fact about my world that had just, for the first time, become visible to me because of the chance to encounter history, to see the different ways people have lived in different places over time, to feel the stretch of distance between myself and the Athenians, but also to see in them a human effort with all of its own complexities different from our own. In that gap was also a space for possibility. If the world had been so different once, it could be different again.
When I asked if they did not use prisons, my professor answered with one of the best acts of mentoring I have ever had the opportunity to witness. “Danielle, that would be a great dissertation topic.” And so, that is what I did. I wrote a dissertation on punishment in ancient Athens. My professor didn’t say, “Oh, well, that’s an unusual question to be asking about ancient Athens when we are really talking about Demosthenes and his oratorical structures, particular legal forms, and so forth.” He said instead, “Danielle, you have noticed something, and the place you’ve come from and the perspective you bring have given you a line of sight that hasn’t previously been pursued in the profession. So, join us. Join this community of scholars and do this work.”
That was a pivotal moment for me, a quality of teaching that I think is special to the humanities: the ability to see students as whole people, to see students who are yearning to connect themselves to an array of cultural traditions and take the resources of predecessors, of generations before us, and to make sense of the world we live in. The gift that he gave me, in a certain sense, was not the corpus of ancient Athens, though that was a tremendous gift. More important, the gift was to affirm the value of my attention, of my attending to the world around me, of my attending to the cultural artifacts of other generations and what I could learn from them. That is the power of the humanities in one person’s life. We all know that, if we could magnify that power and scale it across large populations, it would be for the good. We know that with every fiber of our being, and that really is the spirit that motivated the Academy’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, which shines with Dick Brodhead’s eloquent words. It also motivated the policy choices that we proposed in The Heart of the Matter report.
Of course, though, there was then a gap between policy goals and the realities of the world. The Commission’s report had three main goals for the field. The first was to invest in civic education and civic learning. The second was to invest in the resources of research in the humanities and the new production of scholarship, with additional tools, technologies, and platforms, to make the humanities broadly available. The third goal was to draw on the humanities to strengthen our resources to equip the country for leadership in a complicated and interconnected world.
Astonishingly, we have made progress on the first goal – to invest in civic education. In the Omnibus Bill that was passed in December, Congress increased by threefold the investment the country is making in civic education. Now, that sounds like a lot – a threefold increase. The bad news is we were starting from a very low base, from $7 million to adding an additional $20 million, which gets us to about $27 million. That said, the budget that President Biden just submitted has an even greater increase for civic education.
More important, there is now a nationwide coalition of people working on civic education, and states are increasing their provision. This is obviously a highly contested terrain, and we also have the real challenges of polarization exemplified by the battle between Governor DeSantis and the state of Florida. We will have to see how that all proceeds over time. Nonetheless, there is a very hearty band of people, cross-ideological, diverse across the country and across backgrounds, working hard on civic education. The Heart of the Matter report helped validate that work, and it was an important foundation for a new decade of effort in that space.
The other reason that work is growing and succeeding is because our circumstances are so dire, because our democracy is so fragile and vulnerable, because the greatest threat to democracy in the world right now is not anything happening outside our borders. The greatest threat is whether we can secure healthy democracy here at home. We need to secure twenty-first-century versions of civic strength that permit us to pull our democracy back together again. In polling across parties, it is clear and apparent that a supermajority of Americans is making civic education a top priority.
So that’s some good news. But again, it comes out of this dire necessity to focus at home, so our attention on the value of the humanities in a global context has weakened. We see less in the way of language learning than a decade ago. We know that college humanities majors are declining, for example. And similarly, with regard to the issue of the resources needed for creative workforce deployment, we have prioritized technology and reaped the rewards of that prioritization, both good and ill.
The political turmoil that we experience, sitting here today with an indicted former president, is, in significant part, a consequence of the rise of social media. When we wrote The Heart of the Matter in 2013, we truly did not take the measure of that phenomenon. If I were going to point to any one thing that we really ought to rethink and consider differently, it is that fact of how social media has transformed our world.
The rise of social media has meant many things. People are swamped by bad information. They do not know how to sort good from bad, and feel at sea, even in considering the possible resources that the humanities have to offer. But beyond that, there is the simple fact that digital tools and social media have changed the fundamental logic of what it means to curate the humanities and to share the humanities. Before the rise of digital content, the terabytes, the subject of the title of my remarks, humanity’s artifacts were precious and rare. Cultural content was rare. It was a rare good that had to be provisioned, and you needed the providers, the scholars of the humanities.
But now, cultural content is abundant. The quantity of cultural creation that has occurred in the last two decades vastly outweighs the content created in the prior millennia of human history. The volumes are not comparable to each other by any stretch of the imagination. In a world where cultural content is abundant, what is scarce is attention.
When cultural objects were rare, it was our job as scholars to make sure people had access to them and had a chance to find their way, to navigate and understand them. With the abundance of cultural content, that logic has now changed, and this means that we need to reconceive the profession. Our job is no longer to make sure people have access to culture. We can still help them navigate toward the better stuff, but even that has become challenging, given the scale of cultural production now. There’s just too much new cultural and humanities content for any professional group to take responsibility for curating all of it. Now, in a world in which attention is scarce, fragmented, and captured, the more important job is to help people rebuild the very muscle of their attention. We can help them once again find the value of their own attention, strengthen that capacity, and learn how to use it wisely.
There is a professor at Princeton, Graham Burnett, who has been building a lab focused on trying to restructure the humanities around cultivating that power of attention. I am going to play a small part of a video in which he describes that work so that you can get more of a sense of what this idea is about.
[Audience watches a short video clip from the Attention Labs video library.]
That was a little snapshot of young people telling us what they see in the world. They see a degradation of their experience of attention because of the phones, because of the apps, because of the platforms, because of the terabytes. This should be an alarm bell for humanists. It is also an extraordinary opportunity because we are the ones who have the tools and the practices to cultivate that instrument, as Professor Burnett was calling it, the instrument of our human attention, our mind, our heart, our judgment, what we can bring to bear on understanding the world.
To take up the job of cultivating the instrument of human attention can feel like a very small contribution up against the scale of the challenges and problems we have in the world, but I have a hunch that if we are to put this problem of attention at the center of what we are asking the humanities to do right now, we might find a huge appetite for the work of the humanities. We might change the dynamics we see on college campuses and in other contexts, where the practice of the humanities seems to be slipping away.
Jeffrey Brown is Senior Correspondent and Chief Arts Correspondent for PBS NewsHour.
It is a pleasure to be back at the Academy. As David mentioned, I was a member of the Academy’s Arts Commission a few years ago. I also grew up in this area, and I understand that many of you are staying at the Sheraton Commander Hotel. I was a busboy there, delivering room service. Over the course of my career, I have met many important celebrities and powerful people. But one of my great claims to fame in life is that when I was seventeen, I delivered room service to John Lennon and Yoko Ono!
I was not a member of the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, but ten years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Dick Brodhead and John Lithgow on our program when The Heart of the Matter was released, so I am very familiar with the kind of issues that you are talking about. When I received the invitation from David Oxtoby for tonight’s program, I had to laugh for a moment. Let me explain, and I hope you take it the right way. For many years, I was getting invited all the time to conferences and discussions about the humanities, and it was always about the death of the humanities. What’s happening? How are we going to save the humanities? I was regularly talking about the humanities. And then, those invitations stopped. So, when David invited me to tonight’s program, I thought, “Well, at least they are still talking about it.”
To begin our conversation, Danielle, what is your starting point for the state of the humanities right now? Let’s start with general terms, and then we’ll get into some specifics.
ALLEN: I think the broad-brush picture is familiar to folks here. The public humanities are flourishing, and there is growth, with state and territorial humanities councils, for instance, and cultural programs of a variety of kinds. In contrast, in higher education, and Rob Townsend has all the data from the Humanities Indicators project, majors have declined across the board, and during the pandemic, humanities majors took the biggest hit. So, with regard to the formal indicators that we usually use, there is a sense of discrepancy between the public’s engagement with the humanities and what is happening in the academic and collegiate context.
BROWN: And you see that in the culture?
BROWN: But then, on the other hand, there is the public humanities side.
ALLEN: What you see in the public humanities, and also when you look at museums, orchestras, and other kinds of musical organizations, is a lot of reinvention. People have done a remarkable job of diversifying programming and audiences. Just look at any city symphony, Boston Symphony, for example, and you can see streams of programming. They are bringing in different musical traditions, different age groups, and so forth into the hall. There is a lot of terrific and inventive work that is making the connection to high cultural forms, and it is based on decades of training and expertise. There is a sort of diversification of that work and effort. One of the things I was pointing to with regard to digital production is that the volume of content in a digital space is so extraordinary, and everybody is engaged with it. If we think about what it means to engage with art, pictures, and words, it seems that people are as engaged with that kind of element of human experience as ever in human history. But what is harder is the connection of that to a highly developed quality of attention, the kind of quality of attention that supports reading a long book. I don’t know about the others here who are teaching, but my reading lists have been getting shorter every year, including at Harvard. Every year, I shrink my syllabus. Sustained attention and the ability to do work building on sustained attention seem to be quite endangered.
BROWN: If you put these things together, what is the right discussion we should be having now? Is it around attention, or is there more?
ALLEN: I do think it is around attention. Professor Burnett has built a lab that is pulling together young people on college campuses, and also in high school contexts, for experiences of learning how to use that muscle of attention, and those experiences are organized around humanities artifacts. There is content there, but it is also about that experience of attention. The reason why I mentioned that Professor Burnett has a lab is because it takes a team to do this work. That is a piece of the way the model of working in the humanities needs to change in contemporary circumstances. We are the part of the university that is still the most monastic in how we go about our work. If you are writing a book, you are the single author. It is your job. And the truth of the matter is that where we see impact and influence coming out of the university, it is because teams are working together. It is because scientists have labs. There are humanists who have labs. I am one of them, and we exist on campuses all over the country, but it is not yet the norm.
BROWN: Can you explain what you mean when you say you have a lab?
ALLEN: Sure. Lab is just a fancy word for working in a team. That’s all. You don’t need a space to have a lab. What it means is you have a set of projects that you are working on together. In my case, my lab for the last decade or so has focused on civic education. I have folks working with me. Those folks are other faculty members, who are my collaborators. It also means graduate students and undergraduates working as research assistants. It means some professional staff who are supporting the work. We have done work on curriculum design. We have also done work on scholarly papers analyzing what we are doing in the curriculum and its impacts. There are a lot of different pieces of the work, but the point is that we are taking the resources of the humanities and putting them to work in the places where they are needed, and it takes a team to do that.
BROWN: And it is also going to a different model. What does that mean in terms of who is working on the team?
ALLEN: It means that people have to be ready for collaboration. It means that we publish group-authored pieces. Another sort of marker of the difference between the sciences and the humanities is that on a scientific paper, there will be three hundred names on the author list.
BROWN: Is it hard to change the psychology?
ALLEN: That is a good question. I have been doing it for a long time now, so it doesn’t feel hard, though I do think there continue to be challenges about how people are rewarded for scholarly production. For early-stage professors especially, there is a big emphasis still on the first book, on monographic writing, which can take people years to produce, and those are years in which you don’t really develop the skills of collaboration because you are working by yourself. There is a lot of desire to collaborate, but if you are spending all your time working on writing your sole book, you don’t get the chance to develop those muscles of collaboration.
BROWN: Can you flesh out this idea of focus on attention a bit more? What would it mean as a practical matter for curriculum, for majors, for how one structures humanities departments?
ALLEN: I can’t give you a very good answer at this point in time because we are still thinking through what that means. For instance, in my own teaching practice, I am trying to rethink how I introduce students to texts at a very basic level. Rather than expecting that they are going to master some meaningful chunk of Plato, some meaningful chunk of Aristotle, and some meaningful chunk of Augustine all in one semester, I would much rather focus on a small portion and spend time with them, giving them a sense of self awareness of the benefits they are getting from that experience. We have a huge mental health crisis on college campuses and among young people generally. This question about how we support their use of their attention is directly responsive to that crisis.
BROWN: Technology has always impacted the way people learn, and every technology that comes along has created a kind of crisis. What is the difference in magnitude now?
ALLEN: The difference is the volume, and the fact that it is very hard for people to navigate the quantity of information that is out there. We are cultivating short attention spans. And once you cultivate short attention spans, you no longer have access to symphonies, to operas, to long novels. Another element of this would be that nobody learns cursive anymore. We just assume people are going to type, so we don’t teach cursive. That means the whole manuscript record up until the beginning of the twentieth century is not available. Going forward, people are not going to be able to read any of that stuff. It is like the lights go out, and it all disappears. The archives that we have collectively and carefully curated cease to have the same heft for rising generations. We don’t want it to lose its heft, so we have to make space for it in the world as it is. That requires work to strengthen people’s instruments of attention so that then there is a capacity to engage with this material, appreciate it, understand it, and keep it moving forward.
BROWN: But this means that in the future – ten, twenty, thirty years from now – the role of scholars and what they are trained for could change.
ALLEN: Yes. It is changing, and we see that all around us. When I was in that classroom at Princeton in 1991, it was also the time when we had the first computer with digitized versions of Greek texts. We used to comment on this in class because we could tell that one of the things that distinguished our professors, that made them professors, was the fact that they had more stuff in their heads than other people. But then the computer had that much stuff too. It was very clear to us that the thing that they had been trained to do and why they were there just didn’t matter anymore. And if that’s very clear, then you don’t have a way of engaging the attention of students. You start to question what is my job and my relationship to these incredible archives of materials that we care so much about?
BROWN: And here we are now at the beginning of a new technology with AI. How much does that impact your thinking about all of this?
ALLEN: I am still sorting my way through this. But the volume of cultural content that has been created is overwhelming, and we are now entering a world in which anything can be fraudulently created. I don’t know if you have been following the news around OpenAI’s release of ChatGPT-4. It is the next generation of their GPT system. It is not just that AI is moving along continuously in its growth and development. We are entering a new world, and everybody needs to understand that. It is like the invention of gunpowder or the invention of nuclear power. Everything is about to change in quite dramatic ways. It is now possible for somebody to write an op-ed about what should we do about gerrymandering and to do so in the voice of Danielle Allen. You would not be able to tell the difference. Put this prompt into ChatGPT: What would Danielle Allen say about gerrymandering? I have done this, and I can confirm that ChatGPT can, in fact, write op-eds in my voice. Now I can tell the difference, but I’m not sure anybody else can.
BROWN: Were you convinced by the op-ed?
ALLEN: I was ready to get into an argument with it. It is a very strange and interesting experience to interact with ChatGPT. We now rapidly process new text and images as a matter of necessity when previously those things were always luxuries. This will have to affect how we think about protecting and preserving the older treasures and equipping people to navigate the newer welter of content.
BROWN: Ten years ago, much of the discussion was about “STEM versus humanities.” What is the best case that we can make now for the humanities?
ALLEN: I told the story about my own experience as a student to remind us of the human connection we have to culture and its value in our lives. That is the story that was told in The Heart of the Matter report. I think it is still a true story. The real question is how we make good on that claim about the value of the humanities. In terms of the sheer volume of new digital content, there are extraordinary cultural artifacts that are being created in this tsunami. Students are finding interesting, beautiful, and engaging cultural artifacts in this tidal wave. But very few scholars in the humanities are equipped to engage with students in relationship to the artifacts they are finding and that they care about. Somehow we need to reconnect the skills that we have to the new kinds of explorations young people are pursuing.
BROWN: Where do you see it in our culture? Earlier, you were talking about museums and music institutions. For me, it’s my job to look for it, so I run into people who are bringing these worlds together.
ALLEN: Before I answer, I would love to hear about some of the things that you have seen recently.
BROWN: Last week, I was in San Francisco with the artist Kehinde Wiley, who is best known for his portrait of Barack Obama. That work and his new exhibition engage with and respond to art history, to put contemporary Black figures into the frame. This particular exhibition focuses on themes of pain and death – the death of religious or heroic figures familiar from art history. One example, and one of my favorite sculptures, is the Dying Gaul in Rome. Kehinde Wiley used that sculpture but changed it so that his work portrays a dying Black man in a hoodie. You don’t have to know about that ancient sculpture, but you can learn about it by looking at Wiley’s work.
ALLEN: That is a beautiful example, and it calls out the question of how do we want to think about a connection between the cultural productions of prior ages and the cultural production of our own age. A lot of people are pressing on that, trying to figure out how to knit those things together. Your example shows a way of connecting traditions from different times and places. It is doable, and it is enlivening. The question that I have is what is happening with the humanities on college campuses? There is some basic instinct that if we are not replenishing the pipeline of people who are experts in a variety of different traditions, a certain set of lights will go out, that we won’t be preparing even the next generation of artists who are taking things in all kinds of unpredictable and wonderful ways. How much does that view about replenishment matter?
BROWN: Before we turn to questions from the audience, I want to go back to the interview that I did with Dick Brodhead and John Lithgow ten years ago. I remember John saying that the humanities tend to be neglected. The study of the humanities is not being attacked, he said. “It’s not a political football, which is always a great danger because people have different belief systems. But it is simply being neglected.” Well, ten years later, are the humanities still being “neglected”?
ALLEN: For that section of the humanities on civic education and history education, there has been growth and effort, but also controversy. I think that growth and effort are a good sign. And ultimately, we will see some regrowth of other disciplines of the humanities as well. About a decade ago, in the context of this report, I started a project to try to understand humanists’ own organic assessments of the value of what they were doing. In terms of the practice of a humanistic scholar, what was the purpose? One of the interesting results of this project was that the predominant purpose was a civic one of preparing people for connection and engagement in civic life. So, knowing that and seeing the return of resources into the civic education space, my hunch, again, would be that, a decade hence, we will also see resources flowing more generally into the humanities because I think the humanities follow behind civic purpose.
BROWN: Let’s turn now to some questions and comments from our audience.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you both. It is terrific to hear you lay out some of these important themes. I was really taken by your emphasis on what you call the phase shift because of the emergence of generative AI and its applications. I was reading one short reflection on some of the possible ways in which this phase shift might play out. We say we are moving from the Information Age to the Intelligence Age, referring to the algorithmic capabilities. But the point is that it’s not just analytics. This author was giving the example of how software can change because AI can write code. You can ask it, if you know how to prompt it, to produce software for you. You have a one-time application, and the ability to have customized AI experiences is going to take off. But what about the scenario in which we have scholarly journals that are provisioned by the scholarship that humans are producing because of our depth of knowledge in particular domains? It is already possible for generative AI to produce a scholarly article. If we go forward just three or five years, one can appreciate how that might accelerate.
ALLEN: But it is not good at footnotes yet.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: There is the AI hallucination. It makes up the sources. But what do you think are the implications for the production of scholarly knowledge that humans undertake, and how that might be impacted? I am wondering if it is not just the matter of attention. Instead of reading an article, you ask it to summarize the text for you, and though there are lots of errors, it gets a lot of things right. What do you think this means for knowledge production at the level of the human versus something else?
ALLEN: I think we are all trying to answer that question right now. This is a different way of answering the question of what is the role of humanities? We are the ones who should be helping to answer these questions. I do a fair amount of tech ethics work right now, and every group of technologists that is trying to work on these things would benefit from having more humanists in the conversation. On the one hand, it will accelerate scholarship. We could ask our own questions. It doesn’t have to tell us what questions to ask; it’s just a tool. It is like a very efficient research assistant. The biggest issue is that it is going to shift the balance, exacerbate the division between elite segments of society that have access to this tool and non-elite segments of society that do not. Over the weekend, because I was trying to figure out this stuff and what it does, I used it to help me with a small research project that I have spent ridiculous amounts of time on, like months. I am trying to figure out a specific kind of legal question of how different jurisdictions handle a particular issue. Fifteen minutes, and it was done. Now its answers were not all accurate, and I had to triangulate, but the point is it accelerated my ability to see where I needed to look for things that then I could triangulate and clean up the information. Literally, nine months of work it did in fifteen minutes. That is just the tip of the iceberg of what it can do. It can code as well as the top twenty-fifth percentile of coders at tech firms. It can perform at a top level on the LSAT. It can basically beat humans in any of the things that we test at this point in time. But the more significant thing is that the machine language learning models have a bird’s-eye view of all digital data that humanity has produced, which means that it can see patterns that are literally unimaginable to us because we can’t have that perspective. We can’t even imagine the kinds of patterns that are seeable if you have access to that vast magnitude of data. It can think things we can’t think, and that is what is unpredictable. It really is a game changer. We want to talk about the future of the humanities, and I would love to give a clean, crisp answer to that question. At some level, I think it’s just very basic. We need the humanities the same way we always did – so that people understand human experience, develop a moral compass, are capable of good judgments in conditions of uncertainty, and have a corpus of things they have learned from and processed over time to understand that hard, human work of judgment. I always come back to that. That doesn’t really seem to increase majors on college campuses, and I don’t really know what to do about that disconnect.
BROWN: It is obviously impacting all kinds of professions. I was recently doing something on the impact of AI on artists with one of the leading artists working in this area. He uses the word “instrument” and says it is a tool, and he finds it a phenomenal tool that can do amazing things. But if you asked him who is the artist, he would say that he is the artist. The machine is a tool. I had a chance to go to his studio, which was fascinating. When you conjure up an artist’s studio, you assume it has paints and brushes. His studio was a lab, and his team included data processors, data scientists, technologists, an architect, and designers. People who are very focused on the ethics of the information that is being put in. They were very proud of using only ethically sourced data. We know that is not the case in many places. I have met artists who are being put out of work already by AI – anybody who is in the illustration business, of course.
ALLEN: Yes, lots of coders and artists are being impacted. The workforce implications are going to be profound, and they are going to happen fast. Yes, it is just a tool, but so too is nuclear power just a tool. I was thinking about this because the Academy has done important work on nuclear power. I am a signatory on a letter that just went out a few days ago calling for a moratorium for six months on any further development on large language models. It is getting a fair amount of coverage in the press. We need to develop actual parameters for the development of this technology. The work the Academy did on nuclear power may be a good model for what could happen with this now.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Do we need to redefine the humanities to capture some of the new media that is eroding attention and treat them with the same sort of scholarly respect as old media?
ALLEN: Well, I think that is already happening, to be honest. I think rising generations of scholars across disciplines – comparative literature, English, all the languages, and the visual arts – are already doing that. So, again, that is where one ends up feeling stuck connecting to our students’ sense of what they want to concentrate in. I agree that it is a conundrum.
BROWN: That is all we have time for. Thank you, Danielle, for a terrific conversation, and thank you all for your questions and comments.
OXTOBY: Let me offer my thanks to Danielle and Jeff. This was an insightful conversation. I am excited that the Academy will continue to examine, employ, celebrate, and champion the humanities. Thank you all for joining us. The 2111th Stated Meeting of the American Academy is hereby adjourned.
© 2023 by Danielle Allen and Jeffrey Brown, respectively