The following is an interview between Web Coordinator of the Sapiens Tribune, Felicia Appenteng, and Sapiens Editor, Rolf Strom-Olsen


FA:  A lot has been said recently about the value of humanities, as many people find disciplines such as economics and medicine to be more valuable.  This discussion became even more prominent after Anthony Kronman published, “Education’s End.”  How would you describe the value of the humanities?

RSO: Well, I would perhaps be rather circumspect about such sweeping declarations like those in Kronman’s new book. After all, Francis Fukuyama told us back in the early 1990s that history was over – yet we now see that the "history" Fukayama was referring to (epic struggles between clashing ideologies) is greater than ever. However, there is no doubt that as a whole we are moving away from a former emphasis on broad exposure to those subjects we call "humanities" and probably losing something in the process.
I think a grounding in the humanities changes enormously the way in which we engage with our society and our world. Since this is not particularly tangible, it is hard to pinpoint specific advantages (reading Mill on the Floss won’t help improve the profitability of a production line). But I think that a core education in the humanities helps people create analytical frameworks and fosters critical enquiry in a way that is useful beyond the narrow confines of a particular discipline. Trying to justify the utility of the humanities with respect to specific applications in the modern world is something of a Chinese finger box and we are better off not to even enter into such a debate on those terms. Rather, since the humanities represents broadly different aspects of the human experience it is safe to suggest that many people will always find study of those topics embraced by the term humanities interesting, and interest tends to elicit usefulness, even if it is impossible to quantify directly.

FA:  As an Editor for The Sapiens Tribune, how do you choose the topics which you write about?  What do you think the importance of blogs is in contemporary intellectual discourse?

RSO: Blogging is a very ambiguous term, really. For many, it is simply an online diary that people use to stay connected to their friends & family, while at the other end of the spectrum, we have seen blogs coalesce into full-fledged political movements, such as the Daily Kos in the US.

Sapiens Tribune is yet something else, although technically a blog: a kind of informal, quasi-academic journal that invites topics on a wide range of issues and (I think) engages its readers at a consistently vigorous level. Such efforts are highly salubrious for intellectual discourse. Not only do they help widen participation in such discussions, but they also encourage varied engagement. I have read with enormous interest the thoughts of my fellow editors and have enjoyed very much the diversity of topics that we feature. It is also worth noting that such efforts help to bring together people from diverse backgrounds and interests not to mention (as a Canadian) geography.

As for what I choose to write about, I tend toward topics and themes that are of interest to me – music, history, politics – and hope that I can convey why I find them interesting.

FA:  As a historian, how do you see technology changing the nature of scholarship?

RSO: The change is so great as to be hard to measure. To mention one specific example, the fact that many journals now offer their contents in a fully search-enabled format online in many cases going back decades means that a raft of scholarship that was hitherto obscure to all save a handful of specialists  has suddenly opened up. I think the impact of this is hard to fathom, since it greatly increases the ability of scholars to benefit from the huge amount of work that has been done in one or another field without having to immerse oneself at length in specialised bibliographies. More broadly, technology has greatly enhanced the interchange between scholars and increasing the ability to share ideas and resources. This is serving to amplify our access to knowledge and to increase our ability to understand it.

_music_composition_ FA:  What inspired you to study for a Masters in music composition?

RSO: I have long been interested in music generally and in composition specifically. While living in London, I had the fortunate opportunity to scratch this creative itch and while audiences may not have been particularly excited at the results, I have to say it has been a very fulfilling experience.

FA:  As a historian, what lessons does history offer to the business entrepreneur?

RSO: Quite a few, I think. The ability to recognise and consider patterns and tendencies and trends of the past is a useful skill in evaluating the present and pondering the future. History is really a blanket term for the sum of human experience up until now, which for practical purposes has been divided up into various sub-disciplines. The result can be misleading, however. Business students, for example, might expect economic history to be the most germane to their own pursuits. That, however, might lead them to swelter under the weight of statistics detailing wheat production in the 16th century. By contrast, changes that take place when, for example, the average age of marriage changes (social history) or population trends shift (demographic history), or resources are threatened (environmental history), might all sound rather abstruse at the outset but offer up invaluable clues about changes that are taking place in our own society in ways that offer analytical benefit and advantage. It is interesting , for example, that there has been a rise in interest in American history as a way to assess the changes that are expected to take place in China and India, as an earlier instance of a rapidly evolving middle class. Generally, few disciplines can offer direct answers, but I think people are frequently surprised at how relevant such studies can be to their own interests, even if they seem at the outset quite far removed.

Barack190 FA:  In mid-November, you wrote a piece on the Sapiens Tribune, “The Post Modern Politician” about democratic candidate Barack Obama.  Obama has a very American story, but his sense of self is also defined from the time that he spent outside of America.  How do you think the national and international reception of Obama has shown some of the interesting cultural differences between America and Europe?

RSO: That is an interesting question. I think Obama’s highly positive international reception hints at the way in which people outside the US sometimes hope for more Americans than they do for themselves. What are called "Progressive Politics" in the US – universal healthcare coverage, abortion rights, progressive taxation, controls on gun ownership, the probity of capital punishment, state-mandated maternity leave, employment protection to name several hot-button issues – these "progressive" issues have been largely normalised within the political culture elsewhere across the West while remaining difficult and divisive issues in US political discourse. A politician like Barak Obama offers, or seems to offer, the hope that this anomalous divide can be bridged.

I would add that I think the monumental failures of the Bush administration have only heightened expectations for better things to come from the US and that the Democrats – be it Obama or Hillary Clinton – represent a strong hope for a better politics. As numerous commentators have observed, the last years have demonstrated that American politics matter considerably to the rest of the world; the Bush years have neglected America’s role in tackling important issues – climate change, fair trade practices, human rights, and the like. That neglect has had a major impact on our world, one that has only been magnified by a growing sense of urgency in needing to tackle these problems. As a result, when we evaluate the current crop of contenders in the US as outsiders, I think there is a legitimate desire for someone who can bring what I might call a politics of correction or even rehabilitation. Barack Obama certainly has been positioning himself as a candidate who can achieve that, and this explains the fact that despite being a relative neophyte in national politics, his candidacy has garnered enthusiasm and support, both from within the US and outside.


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