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05.13.09

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Phaedra

Photograph by Curtis Cartier
Humanities' Best Friend: Former UCSC history of consciousness professor Paul Lee and his dog Willie

A March Toward Machinery

Founding UCSC faculty member Paul Lee on the demise of the humanities.

By Curtis Cartier


WITH several lecturers and professors already holding pink slips, it seems all but certain that UCSC will follow through with its rumored plans to phase out its community studies program. Retired professor and Santa Cruz resident Paul Lee knows what it's like to be deemed expendable. The Harvard Ph.D. and former MIT professor of philosophy was canned from his teaching job at UCSC in 1972 not long after pioneering the history of consciousness program and starting the country's first organic university garden with Alan Chadwick. From the back yard of his upper Westside home, he explained why he's not surprised that a liberal arts program like community studies is on the chopping block.

SANTA CRUZ WEEKLY: How is the UCSC of the '60s different from the one of today?
PAUL LEE: UCSC had a five-year run as a liberal arts institution (from 1965 to 1970). Since then it's slowly shifted over to the sciences, and humanities has disappeared. It's the same story everywhere. Almost all institutions of higher learning are science-driven, and all you have to do is follow the money. UCSC is shifting from a true university to a major research institution.

What effect has this had on the town of Santa Cruz?
None, really. There is a short circuit between the university and the town. Community Studies overcame that. That's one reason it's really sad to see it go.

If the UC system won't offer community studies and liberal arts education, who will pick up the slack?
Nobody. It's a fadeout. There's been a steady march from Galileo to now in the victorious triumph of science. It brought about industrial society as a world above the given world of nature. It determines what counts for knowledge in the university curriculum. It's been a wholesale takeover by science.

The humanities are like some old relative you have that sits in some corner. And, you know, you have to feed them and take care of them, but you're really just waiting for them to die. It's a closeout sale at the bargain counter for what counts for knowledge.

What effect will this have on society?
It's a terrible thing. I invested my life the humanities. I think there is now and will continue to be a dissolution of the definition between what's real and what's simulated. It's already started. People don't know what's real anymore. The notion that machines will probably eventually be indistinguishable from human beings is almost guaranteed. They're working on it every day and they're close.

I taught at MIT for three years after Harvard and the students there would refer to themselves as "tools." I was stunned that they would do that, but as it turned out it was a kind of a half-ironic, half-tragic realization of their being MIT students and engineers--just cogs in the machine. Coming from Harvard, we would have to teach them things to say at cocktail parties for which they would never be invited. This was a critical case of the importance in trying to put a little humanities into the machinery.

Do the students and supporters of community studies have any hope of saving their program?
When I taught [at UCSC] in the '60s I referred to the students there as "oceans of desire." Fifteen years after that, I would see them and call them "abandoned waifs." They get all their clothes from discount boxes outside Laundromats. You can use that to answer your question.

What is the UCSC curriculum going to look like in 10 years?
Nanotechnology. They've got the engineering school now. You can pretty much tell the direction it's going. They started the mapping of genomes here and will continue to drive in that direction. That's just the way historical trends take place. What can you say about it other than to acknowledge it? It's tremendously sad.


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