Tragedy, Comedy and Axiology

March 28th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In today’ Chronicle of Higher Education Thomas H. Benton (a pseudonym) relates (subscription required) his comedic/tragic experiences dealing with the consequences of Weinberg’s axiology of science.

“I was meditating in the men’s room down the hall from my office, and it occurred to me that humanities departments often have the worst buildings and facilities on campus. Is your toilet paper a gigantic roll in a locked plastic case (to prevent you from stealing it)? Does the roller have a spindle so stiff that only one sheet of single-ply paper can be removed at a time (to thwart your wastefulness)? Do you use stringy soap that leaves long strands of bubble-gum scented goop between the dispenser and the sink? Do you have spring-loaded faucets that shut themselves off instantly, so that one hand must hold the water on while the other hand half-rinses itself? Do you dry your hands with an abrasive brown paper that seems to be made out of pulverized Egyptian mummies?

The building where I work as an English professor went up about 60 years ago as a state-of-the-art science center. Our small, liberal-arts college has built two new state-of-the-art science centers since then. One was completed just last year after a record-breaking capital campaign, and it is quite luxurious. The restrooms in that new science center have beautiful marble countertops. The chrome faucets do not shut themselves off against your will, and the soap dispensers put a precise dollop of something like shaving cream in your palm with the touch of a button. Even the toilet stalls are wider. It’s like the difference between first class and coach. I half expect a washroom attendant to offer me a fresh towel and to brush the lint off my jacket.”

He concludes with suggestion of a few possible new career tracks for humanists:

“Still, even in my present position on the tenure track, I can’t help thinking that the humanities faculty is rapidly descending into a stratum so far beneath the scientists that we can’t mingle socially without awkwardness. I suppose the humanists look unclubbable. Some of us have taken to wearing denim in case we’re called upon in an emergency — perhaps to prop up a falling roof timber or to man a bucket brigade. Given the surplus of people with humanities Ph.D.’s, in the not-too-distant future the science faculty should be able to recruit our assistant professors as subjects for their experiments. After that, they could be set loose in the biology department’s forest preserve, and administrators could hunt them for sport. But, before that happens, I plan to schedule all my classes — and meditation — in the new science center. I’ve already begun doing so. The students in my English classes don’t always appreciate having to walk across the campus, but a few of them like the idea that the humanities are being taught in the very heart of the new academic hegemony. But there is a problem. After two semesters, the scientists are becoming aware that one of those vulgar humanists is up to something in their clubhouse. Last fall, they noticed that the desks in one of their orderly, high-tech classrooms had been arranged like a horseshoe instead of in rows. An e-mail memo quickly went around that “desks must be put back in straight lines.” Several times I’ve found my classroom locked. Only scientists have keys to those rooms.”

Find the whole column here (subscription required). And on the less tongue-in-cheek side, have a look at a paper that I collaborated with Carl Mitcham and Bob Frodeman on the humanities as a subject of science policy analysis:

Frodeman, R., Mitcham, C. and R. Pielke, Jr., 2003: Humanities for Policy – and a Policy for the Humanities. Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 2003, pp. 29-32. (PDF)

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