Where Is the Humanities' Neil DeGrasse Tyson?

Cosmos is a hit, again. Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a pop science star. Thanks to him, kids dream about expanding human knowledge of the phenomenal universe. Now: Where's a liberal arts rockstar to make people care about human culture that much?

Tyson makes the sciences so damned vital. After a career of "space evangelism," advocating for a bigger NASA budget to focus the dreams of would-be scientists, he's used Cosmos—a reboot of the wildly successful Carl Sagan series—to enliven the natural world and slay a few superstitious shibboleths along the way. Chances are you watched him explain the Big Bang and Einsteinian relativity last night. Before that, he reclaimed evolution from its modern-day discontents.

It works. There's actually a documented "Neil DeGrasse Tyson Effect" on listeners. And he's not just hooking in kids. "The challenge has never been children," he's told The Atlantic of his science-communication goals:

The challenge has been adults... All the adults are saying, "We need to improve science in the world. Let's train the kids." I've never heard an adult say, "We need more science in the world. Train me." I've never heard an adult say that. It's the adults that need the science literacy, the kind of literacy that can transform the nation practically overnight.

Yet it's not just science literacy that's wanting among American adults today. The liberal arts have basically been buried in the landfill of our culture under McDonald's wrappers and bank statements and William Hung CDs. Our consumption- and production-obsessed political leadership thinks these humanities disciplines should be defunded because, hey, who employs theorists these days?

"Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists?" Florida GOP Governor Rick Scott said in 2011—who went ahead and answered his own rhetorical question, "I don't think so," because he probably never covered rhetorical reasoning in business school.

This is nothing new: The history of America is in some sense a long obsession with the practicalities of life and an equally long disdain for the theoretical. In universities, undergrad programs have shifted from life education to job training. The two aren't mutually exclusive, of course, but most advocates of "practical" degrees see theory as a threat to practicality somehow.

The humanities breed curiosity. A certain epistemological humility. And as a result, empathy. Language matters. Stories matter. Art matters. History matters.

This is your brain without a grounding in the humane arts and letters:

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.

The humanities, they don't even have Sister Wendy anymore. Ken Burns made superstars out of some historians, trained and amateur, back in the '90s. But Shelby Foote is dead now.

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.

Imagine if, owing to these liberal arts communicators, people dreamed about discovering the next great writing style, or using principles of art history to illuminate modern advertising, or building a neo-Kantian theory of relations between states, or uncovering new archival evidence of America's history, warts and all.

Who are those superstars? Where are they? And without them, where are we?

Update: Fellow FSU PhD Kelly Baker, a religion scholar, argues similarly on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Vitae blog. Her article includes some great prescriptive advice to academics in the liberal arts on how to better articulate their work to mass audiences, a la NDT—a great rejoinder to many of the humanities scholars' comments on this post below. Baker writes:

But, Kelly, what if my research is complicated?, you might ask. The world is a complicated place, but complexity is not the end point of discussion. It's just the beginning. Slow down and show people how complicated, messy, intersectional, and entangled our worlds are. Walk them through your subject in a way they can understand. Bring your message to them.

It's a great read. Give it a look.

[Photo credit: AP]