The memes have been circulating on the internet for years: “Science can tell you how to clone a Tyrannosaurus rex; the humanities can tell you why this might be a bad idea.”

Science and the humanities have coexisted at Virginia Tech throughout the university’s 150-year history, and in recent decades their parallel tracks have been increasingly converging. And now, as the university celebrates its sesquicentennial, the rich interplay among their disparate approaches to understanding our world is at the core of a range of initiatives aimed at ensuring technologies are in service to humanity.

“The Virginia Tech Sesquicentennial provides us with a great opportunity to consider the importance of the liberal arts more broadly in a technology-inflected university,” said Laura Belmonte, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “The traditional separations across disciplines are more and more giving way to creative explorations that braid together insights from all approaches.”

To help commemorate the college’s sesquicentennial highlight month — February 2022 — Belmonte reflected on the fertile intersections between the humanities and technologies, between the liberal arts and engineering, between the social sciences and the natural sciences.

Why do the humanities matter?

Belmonte: For millennia, the humanities have carried the torch in times of darkness and in light, guiding people to mutual understandings of reality.

Where would we be as a people if we could not express thought through the written word? If we discounted or concealed the lessons of history? If we ignored the wisdom of ancient philosophers? If we had refused to think critically about how belief systems and languages shape cultures and identities?

Without the humanities, how would we even begin to understand the most profound questions of our lives, let alone seek answers?

As a historian, I understand how the humanities have influenced human history in countless ways. And as a humanist, I fervently believe in the vital importance of the humanities in helping to address the world’s most crucial issues, from climate change and social justice to poverty and human rights.

The humanities help us find clarity in our connections with the world — and ourselves. The humanities allow us to contemplate what matters most to people, and how our closely held values have changed over time.

Not only does the study of the humanities impart crucial analytical and communication skills, but it also makes us ask hard questions about the most profound questions in our lives. What matters most to us as people? What defines us? How and why have our most closely held values changed over time? What are our fears, hopes, and dreams? What is ethical? What is truth?

These are timeless questions whose answers matter in all eras. Today, though — a time in which the ties that bind us and a shared understanding of a common good are under duress — they are even more essential than ever.

Laura Belmonte
Laura Belmonte has served as dean of the Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences since August 2019.

What disciplines fall under the category of the humanities?

Belmonte: Often when we refer to the humanities, we’re thinking of literature, philosophy, history, modern and classical languages, religion, and, more broadly, communication, archeology, law, and the arts, including music, theatre arts, and film. 

Yet the humanities truly encompass everything that makes us human and helps us respond to the world in meaningful ways. At Virginia Tech, therefore, we define the humanities more broadly, to encompass human-centered disciplines, such as those that also classically fall under the social sciences category, such as sociology; psychology; anthropology; criminology; science, technology, and society; human development; political science; international relations; education; geography; and such transdisciplinary fields as environmental justice.

These disciplines all help nurture that most critical of human skills — empathy. The humanities, therefore, are absolutely crucial to society’s very existence and advancement.

How have the humanities intersected with science at Virginia Tech?

Belmonte: I’m pleased to note that the university recognized the importance of the humanities from the very start, when, in 1872, the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College welcomed its first students with a curriculum that included not just agriculture, arithmetic, and astronomy, but also the humanities.

A century later, the weaving together of scientific disciplines with the humanities became explicit. In the 1970s, Joseph Pitt, now a professor emeritus of philosophy, helped launched a program in humanities, science, and technology, which then led to the formation of the Center for the Study of Science in Society, and eventually to today’s Department of Science, Technology, and Society.

In that department — as in all the programs in our college — we place humanity at the core. We’ve also taken the lead in creating a number of programs that work to ensure that technologies are in service to humanity.

The Center for Humanities, for example, seeks to advance research based on humanistic methods of scholarship. Based in our college, the center asks such critical questions as, How did our world become the way it is? How do we create a global society that will be livable for all? What is the future of democracy? 

That program is led by Sylvester Johnson, the university’s assistant vice provost for humanities, who also serves as executive director of Tech for Humanity. With the recognition that technology is fundamentally a human issue that demands comprehensive, human-centered approaches, this university-wide initiative emphasizes ethics, empathy, policy, creativity, diversity, equity, inclusion, and sustainability.

Working with that initiative is the Tech4Humanity Lab, which investigates the impact of technological advances on a broad spectrum of security issues, including those in the political, medical, social, economic, and environmental realms.

These are just a few of the university’s many transdisciplinary initiatives. For the past decade, for example, the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology has brought artists, designers, engineers, scientists, and humanists together to foster creativity and promote critical reflection, all in an effort to solve complex problems. The Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment brings experts from disparate disciplines together as well to tackle issues ranging from social determinants of health to natural disaster responses. And the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science forges partnerships to catalyze discovery at the intersections of engineering, the humanities, and the physical, life, and social sciences.

Our college has also partnered with the Department of Computer Science and University Libraries on initiatives that use technologies to enhance our understanding of the past. In just two examples, Civil War Photo Sleuth uses facial recognition technologies to identify soldiers and civilians during that era, while the History Lab uses extended-reality technologies to help people visualize and explore hidden and often difficult histories.

Such transdisciplinarity is increasingly reflected in the Virginia Tech curriculum as well. Not only are faculty members in the History Lab teaching a course this semester, for instance, but our Academy of Transdisciplinary Studies is taking the lead in designing a new minor in tech for humanity. This program will enable undergraduates to learn at the intersection of humanities and technology, developing essential skills in areas such as the ethics of artificial intelligence, technology and democracy, and social justice.

As societies and technologies advance, I ardently believe that humanity must remain at the forefront to ensure equitable outcomes for all who inhabit our planet. With all this creativity and passion mobilized, Virginia Tech will continue being a leader internationally in creating technological innovations that ensure a thriving future for humanity.