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Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine


Celebrating Knowledge for Its Own Sake

Adam Falk

Katherine S. Newman

The day I sat down to write this column—my first opportunity to introduce myself to thousands of Krieger School alumni—brought the unwelcome news that our sister universities in Great Britain are about to sustain a body blow: an 80 percent reduction in government support for higher education, taking special aim at the humanities and the arts. It may well become very difficult to study Shakespeare in the land of his birth.

Fortunately for our students and faculty, this will never come to pass at Johns Hopkins. The magnificently restored Gilman Hall stands as a very real symbol of our commitment to the humanities. We celebrate the central importance of history, literature, philosophy, classics, archaeology, and the arts for the countless ways in which they inform our understanding of the ideas and values that animated our own country from its founding onward, while drawing us to the divergent traditions that have shaped other societies and cultures.

In public debates, contrasts are often drawn between applied research, with its practical benefits, and pure scholarship, which originates from questions and problems internal to the scholarly world. Some align the sciences with the former and the humanities with the latter. The Krieger School stands against this simplistic association. Our distinguished colleagues in psychological and brain sciences are motivated to explore the chemistry of Alzheimer's disease by the same desire to break new intellectual ground as our historians of the Atlantic world or our philosophers of the mind. Determining the age of the universe—a preoccupation of our astronomers—may yield, along the way, some useful discoveries that will help us solve practical problems on Earth, but that is not why our most distinguished scientists look to the skies in the first place. They are on a voyage to figure out what dark matter is made of, how galaxies formed, or whether it might someday be possible to describe the nano-world in equations that are consonant with the largest structures of the universe.

Their aspirations are no different from the desires of our art historians to figure out how Michelangelo made use of anatomy, or what the religions of ancient Egypt were like, or whether Spinoza and Hobbes had similar conceptions of human nature and how those presuppositions influenced their philosophical views of governance. These are questions driven by sheer intellectual passion, translated into our classrooms so that the next generation will be infused with the same spirit of discovery and reflection.

Recently, I had the good fortune to attend an admissions fair for New York City high school students interested in studying the humanities in the Krieger School. Two members of our faculty gave remarkable presentations based on their research. Drew Daniel from the English Department talked about "dead metaphors"—the ways in which phrases can become overworked and lose the edge they held when first introduced, becoming trite and lacking the power to jolt the reader. His examples, drawn from Shakespeare's sonnets and the satirical re-writes of Shakespeare by Harryette Mullen, had the audience rapt, parents recalling the pleasure of listening to an insightful mind, and their children thinking about what it would be like to study with professors like Drew every day. He was followed by Film and Media Studies' Linda DeLibero, who discussed the cinematic techniques that master artist Julian Schnabel used to depict the world reduced to zero degrees of freedom in the paralyzed body of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the protagonist of the film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. DeLibero delivered a virtuoso performance, all the more remarkable for the way she re-created the opening scenes of the film (because the projector malfunctioned, and she was left needing to convey visual images with nothing more than the authority of her own words).

Most of all, these gifted humanists reminded the audience of prospective students and their families that there is no substitute for the qualities of mind, for the disciplined training, and for the rich imagination that scholarship—whatever its focus—provides. In this, our scientists, social scientists, humanists, and artists are united. Collectively, we are grateful to be part of a university community where both the practical applications of knowledge and discovery for its own sake are valued, celebrated, and admired.

Katherine S. Newman
James B. Knapp Dean