AAAS, Chicago and the humanities

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Vendredi 21 février 2014

Jean-Marc Mangin, Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) traditionally offers little space for the humanities. There were however several panels which included  social scientists, especially in reframing the discussions on innovation away from a simplistic discovery to commercialization linear model to one embracing a complex eco-system supporting creativity . Nonetheless, the need for the humanities was a recurrent motto by several speakers — in his welcoming address, the Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel,  called for a more inclusive approach to learning and solving our global challenges: transforming Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics —the STEM subjects—  into STEAM (STEM + Art = STEAM).

Nobel Prize winner and former Energy Secretary for President Obama, Dr. Steven Chu, delivered a very powerful, often funny and quietly moving keynote on energy and climate change.  Not only did he manage to continue doing research while in serving in the Obama administration, he seized the moral and ethical implications of the climate crisis. Dr. Chu made analogies between climate deniers and tobacco lobbyists: both are using the inherent uncertainty of the scientific discourse to deter action. The world is heading for catastrophic climate change but, from Dr. Chu, it is still possible to change our collective trajectory by taking advantage of efficiency and embracing renewable energy.  He ably  demonstrated the need for our decision makers to understand science in developing evidence based policies. He ended his talk by an almost poetic description of the planet inspired by Carl Sagan and the need for our conceptions of justice to include the poor, the children and future generations. His full keynote is available at

Outside of AAAS, the vibrancy and the contribution of the arts and the humanities were easy to find — in Chicago stunning urban architecture, in its amazing quality of public arts across the city — including a beautiful mural by Chagall (see picture).  My personal highlight was an exceptional  exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art on "The Way of the Shovel: Art as Archeology ". Through the work of several contemporary artists —including three Canadians—, the exhibition offers a multi-layered and complex exploration of history, archeology and literature in our world. What becomes collective memories, historical truths? How do these truths evolve over time? What is the role of imagination and archeology in shaping these choices between what falls into the bins of lost memories and what becomes global cultural artifacts? The exposition is riveting and explores different modes of experience. It ends in early March. A Canadian museum or large art gallery ought to bring it to our country.

Chicago also has another jewel in its mist:  the Chicago Humanities Festival which for the last 20 years has offered programming which make the humanities readily accessible to a larger public. I was lucky to catch a talk in a beautiful downtown church by newly minted MacArthur Fellow, and one of The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40, Karen Russell.  There are lessons for us at the Federation as we intensify our efforts in making the case for the contributions of the humanities and social sciences to the public good.


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