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The Humanities Is Our Missing Tool

Studying the humanities can be part of the solution to the crises we face.

Words: Chris Liggett
Pictures: Talha Ahmed

While I was writing this article, there was a tragic shooting in my hometown of Boulder, Colorado. Ten people were gunned down in the grocery store where my family and I sometimes stop for lunch after a morning of hiking on the front range. A few days prior, friends reached out to tell me that one of my fellow soldiers had taken his own life. He left behind a wife and a young daughter. Within the same week, a man senselessly murdered eight people in Atlanta, Georgia, apparently targeting women of Asian descent. These past weeks have made it especially clear to me that the United States is embroiled in a series of heartbreaking crises. As we seek to address them, the humanities–studies in literature, history, philosophy, etc.–have been overlooked. That oversight is costing us dearly.

Think about our problems that don’t appear to have immediate solutions: a seemingly irreconcilable separation between “left” and “right” in this country, neighbors who won’t take the coronavirus or global warming seriously, businesses that sacrifice workers and customers alike in the quest for quarterly benchmarks, high rates of veteran suicide that the Army can’t seem to resolve. These problems threaten the very fabric of our society. They push us to exclude one another, harm each other, or even kill ourselves.

The humanities and those trained within the humanist method–as compared to the scientific method–offer our best shot at solving these problems. They are, after all, human problems.

We have built a society imagining that the “hard” sciences provide truths while the “soft” sciences provide ideas and feelings. We think that science uses hard evidence to identify specific relations between things which in turn enable us to control the world and steer it toward our desired outcomes. Science cures diseases; it puts the Perseverance rover on Mars; it creates weapons and technologies that protect our country from attack. Science does extraordinary things. But science cannot solve everything.

Science cannot solve the social. Science cannot convince people that climate change is real; it cannot convince people to wear a mask or take the coronavirus vaccine; it cannot build a society that functions as reliably and beautifully as its machines. Science creates tools and methods that improve human life in many ways, but it does not understand the complexities of human life. It can tell us many facts about the human body, including specifics about how the brain functions, but it cannot tell us what a human will do or what they believe. Each individual is a thinking, conscious being, and our society is an intricately woven network of humans working in immensely complex ways that the sciences — in seeking to simplify our understanding of the world through cause-and-effect relationships — simply cannot understand.

Only the humanities come close to offering real solutions. The humanities or the “soft” sciences provide more than ideas and feelings. They give us the closest thing out there to an actual understanding of how the human world works. Rather than attempting to simplify things into a cause-and-effect relationship, the humanities complicate things with an understanding that people are not always rational actors. The humanities do not seek to predict what humans will do. Instead, they try to understand why people do what they do and then explain those motives to others: this might be a key approach to solving the problems we encounter today.

The humanities ask us to investigate what the hell is going on in our polarized American society in a way that exposes the binaries of “liberal snowflake” and “murdering veteran as not only over-simplifications but as lies.

The humanities ask us to investigate what the hell is going on in our polarized American society in a way that exposes the binaries of “liberal snowflake” and “murdering veteran as not only over-simplifications but as lies. The humanities invite us to learn about others–about the authors and their contexts. We learn about other people by listening to their stories and understanding their points of view. Why do they think the things they think? Why do they react to things the way they do? Why are they so damn stubborn about burning the flag, building oil pipelines across their land, letting gay people get married, using racial slurs or having women serve in the combat arms? Humanists listen to people’s stories, find out why they do what they do, and then build relationships – rather than tear them down – in order to improve society. You don’t solve your family problems by ignoring them or by doing a science experiment to prove that one side is right or wrong. You listen, understand, and then create a new way to live together.

Let’s move to a military example. I’ll focus on veteran suicide and the Army’s “people first” policy. We all know that veteran suicide is a massive issue that the Army, and science, can’t control. An estimated 17 veterans take their own life every day, and we lose more soldiers to suicide than to enemy combat or COVID-19, which at the time of this writing has claimed the lives of 17 US service-members. In addition to adequate mental health support, the humanities can teach the skillsets necessary to begin to comprehend this problem at varying scopes and scales.

For example: Literary analysis teaches the methodological process of close reading as a tool for engaging with a narrative. It listens closely to a myriad of stories, zeroes in on specific passages, and connects them with other ideas and other stories from different contexts to form a more comprehensive understanding of what is being said. A practical application in the fight to address veteran suicide would first ask the soldiers to tell their stories: and lots of them. These stories would not be sequestered in a secret vault of medical related files safely guarded by HIPAA–as with psychiatry–but would instead be widely published and circulated. How can we address something that is treated as a personal secret? The humanities would suggest that these stories must be told, shared, and engaged with in order to find deeper connections that might lead to a more complex understanding of the problem.

Once the stories are shared, literary scholars and others would comb through them looking for common themes that could be connected to aspects of the military and civilian culture that surround these veterans and their experiences. Digging deep into doctrinal references, historical accounts, contemporary cultural trends, media productions and other forms of knowledge, the scholar would situate the soldier within a chorus of voices rather than treating them as an isolated case. We call this adding context to the narrative: an important step in realizing that a soldier’s experience is tied to world events that might seem unrelated to their military service. Then, we think, talk, debate, find connections, and prove our points. Much like the concept of open-source collaboration, where loosely coordinated contributors work together to pursue a common goal, humanists around the world would join the conversation and illuminate ways of approaching the problem that no one had previously considered. These revelations would come from and necessarily be supported by the soldiers’ stories as the foundational “texts,” but their connections to other concepts would be free-flowing. This dialogue and genuine interrogation of the problem would result in new truths about veteran suicide: real nuggets of understanding that wash away over-stereotyped rational that claims soldiers simply “miss being a part of a team” or they “don’t know what to do with themselves after military service.” The problem runs deeper than that, and I’m willing to bet that the analytical tools of the humanities can locate hidden causes and bring them to the surface. They might even reveal that this isn’t a purely military problem.

The solutions might not be simple, quick, or efficient. They might disrupt the status quo and add serious levels of discomfort to an organization that says “people first” but really means “mission first.” But the solutions will come from close attention to soldiers, their stories, and the context of the world they live in. What’s more, the solutions will amount to more than the phone number for a crisis hotline and the advice that you should escort a buddy until they can reach medical help. In my own experience with this framework, “medical help” prescribes a series of pain killers and anti-depressants and kicks the soldier back out into the world to continue dealing with their problems on their own until they return a few weeks or months later because of another suicide attempt. Maybe they see a psychiatrist a handful of times, maybe they don’t, but the result usually works out the same. We have all seen this and we know it isn’t working. The goal is to figure out why veterans feel lost, helpless, and alone. It is to create a world where they can escape the crushing weight of anxiety, take a deep breath, and enjoy their lives both in and out of service.

What does all this mean? Does this mean that a literature graduate student or a philosophy professor can single-handedly solve the suicide crisis? Of course not. It means that practitioners of the humanities, and the humanities at large, can bring powerful tools to bear in addressing this problem and others. In my own opinion, it means that we should hire humanists and put them to work in tackling some of our most persistent and seemingly unsolvable issues. We can keep trudging down the same road with the same worn-out tactics or we can try something new and employ a humanist tool that is better equipped for the task.

CPT(P) Chris Liggett is a Special Operations Civil Affairs Officer with deployment experience in Northwest Africa as a Team Commander in 2019. He entered SOF Civil Affairs after serving as an Infantry Platoon Leader with the 101st Airborne Division during OEF ’14. He is currently studying literature in graduate school at the University of Colorado and will instruct cadets at West Point before returning to Civil Affairs to take Company Command.

Chris Liggett

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