Walter Isaacson Delivers 43rd Jefferson Lecture

Walter Isaacson, biographer, journalist and head of the Aspen Institute, delivered the 43rd annual Jefferson Lecture Monday night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, first delivered by the great literary critic Lionel Trilling in in 1972, is the federal government’s most prestigious honor delivered to someone working in the humanities. Isaacson took up a subject that has been a persistent topic for previous lecturers, and has renewed currency in popular discussion today: “The Intersection of the Humanities and the Sciences.”

The Jefferson Lecture was established by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and it effectively promotes what has become the purpose of the endowment over the years: Spreading the word that the humanities remain important, especially in a world in which they seem to afford little financial hope to students considering them as a career. The lecture is often an occasion for proselytizing, rather than contributing to the cumulative conversation that is at the core of most disciplines grouped under the elastic label “the humanities,” literature, history, political theory, social study.

But Isaacson used the moment to preview material and ideas that will likely be the core of his next book, about the pioneers of the digital age. He drew upon his past work, biographies of Steve Jobs and Benjamin Franklin, to remind the audience of the frequency with which great accomplishments in the sciences and technology have come from people deeply versed in a wider range of human discourse. He touched upon the long-lost golden age when men such as Franklin and Thomas Jefferson could be accomplished in multiple disciplines, when the lines between disciplines were more fluid, and when observation, as a basic tool of knowledge, was as applicable in art as it was in scientific experimentation. He also gave some love to Ada Lovelace, often considered the world’s first computer programmer. Lovelace, the daughter of poet Lord Byron, was given an eccentric education heavily weighted to mathematics, and made major contributions to what would become the intellectual underpinnings of computer science a century later.

Isaacson used Lovelace as an exemplar of a mind steeped both in science and poetry, and as a proponent of the essential human element that will (or should) guide the development of technology, and especially artificial intelligence. Lovelace, for Isaacson, represents an ideal: The understanding that human creativity harnessed to scientific power is far more powerful than either alone.

It was an optimistic speech—our ancient fears of machines that will out-think us, or worse, enslave us, are unfounded—but with an uncommon moment of gentle chastising of humanists who forego basic scientific literacy. “People who love the arts and humanities should endeavor to appreciate the beauties of math and physics, just like Ada Lovelace did,” said Isaacson.  Knowledge is power, and to be ignorant of science is to be powerless in a technocratic age: “They will surrender control of that territory to the engineers,” he said.

It was a thought provoking speech. Exactly what kind of control would a scientifically literate humanist have if he or she held a position at the “intersection of the humanities and sciences”? Is it ethical, or moral, the right to guide science in certain directions, and steer it away from others? Or is it simply participation in the technological economy, with all the benefits and privileges that brings?

More profoundly, Isaacson’s talk raises the question of whether the peril to the humanities today even comes from science. Perhaps it is simply economic. Scientists hoping to find funding for high-risk, long-term, speculative research might find they have more in common with poets, translators and literary critics than they realize. Excellence that brings no immediate interest from the commercial sector is lonely business, no matter what form it takes. In the end, it wasn’t Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the well-read, self-made monster with a deep interest in psychology and ethics who was frightening; it was the dark Satanic Mills of Blake, which still churn, and with ever greater efficiency.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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