"Why We Need the Humanities": NEH Lecture with Prof. Donald Drakeman


In 1935, the Princeton University humor magazine ran a cartoon of liberal arts degree recipients in a Depression-era breadline, a rather un-creative jab at the perceived uselessness of their having studied literature or history while the economy crumbled around them; fast-forward some 70 years, and Time featured an article examining many Japanese universities’ decisions to marginalize, if not altogether eliminate, humanities and social science departments. In opening his November 10 talk, the final lecture in the Kinder Institute’s Fall 2016 NEH series, University of Notre Dame Distinguished Research Professor Donald Drakeman used this parallel to note how, in tough times, it’s easy to see these courses of study as “luxury goods” incapable of meeting society’s shifting needs in a STEM-fixated global landscape/economy. In unpacking the thesis of his talk, however, Prof. Drakemen countered this popular assumption with the argument that, perhaps now more than ever, the humanities and social sciences are vital to the task of effectively solving the unique problems that have arisen as a result of rapid innovation in science and technology.

Contextualizing this significance, he went on to explain, requires momentarily putting aside (though by no means discounting) claims about the intrinsic worth of studying the humanities and instead focusing on a use-value rarely associated with this academic pursuit. Take the example of the multi-trillion-dollar medical science industry, Prof. Drakeman argued, where ROI-driven calls to de-emphasize the humanities grossly miss the larger point of how they are absolutely imperative for answering pressing questions that the field faces. Who, he asked, is better equipped to deliberate over the ethical distribution of limited resources than a doctor of philosophy?

The answer, though, is not as simple as, “we should invest more in these academic departments.” In assessing the current state of higher education, Prof. Drakeman suggested that certain philosophical shifts will have to take place in academia if we are to best tap into the humanities’ potential. For one, he underscored the importance of de-stigmatizing the public humanities and, in doing so, encouraging scholars of history or political science to embrace discussing the practical aspects of their work and, moreover, discussing them with audiences outside the academy. In addition, Prof. Drakeman made a call for greater fundamental preference diversity within academia. Productivity, he posited, is often borne out of civil disagreement, and a high degree of ideological variance is necessary for understanding the full scope of how ideas and policies affect society and, in turn, for thoroughly considering all aspects of those controversial decisions that humanities scholars are in a unique position to make.

Donald L. Drakeman is a Distinguished Research Professor in the Program on Constitutional Studies at Notre Dame, a Fellow in Health Management at the University of Cambridge, and a partner in a life sciences venture capital firm. His writings have been cited in numerous patents and by the Supreme Courts of the United States and the Philippines.  His most recent books are Why We Need the Humanities: Life Science, Law and the Common Good (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015); and Church, State, and Original Intent (Cambridge University Press, 2009). A Fellow of both the Royal Historical Society and the Royal Society of Biology, he received a Ph.D. in Religion from Princeton, a J.D. from Columbia, and an A.B. from Dartmouth. He has served as a member of the boards of trustees of Drew University, the University of Charleston, and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, and he chairs the Advisory Council of the James Madison Program for American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.


The lecture was made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and was conducted in partnership with the Missouri Humanities Council. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed during or in response to the lecture do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.