This time of year, a lot of people watch, or re-watch, the 1993 film Groundhog Day. TV weatherman Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray, is caught in a time-loop in Punxsutawney, Pa., that returns him to Feb. 2 over and over again.
The movie was a box-office success and is now considered a classic. Murray’s character is an everyman, and “Groundhog Day” has entered our cultural lexicon as shorthand for “a monotonous, unpleasant, and repetitive situation.” A depressing pattern.
If you want to understand what’s happening in the humanities in U.S. colleges and universities these days, I’d suggest you watch the movie as the celebrated day approaches.
The most obvious reason is the analogy between the repetitive, looping pattern that Murray’s character lives through, and the endless cycle of bad news about the humanities that crisscrosses social media.
That news is monotonous and depressing. The numbers of humanities majors are dropping. Humanities departments are being eliminated. And ChatGPT is making the basic form of humanities expression — writing — obsolete. Or at least subject to deep fakery.
So, as attention turns to whether the groundhog will see his shadow, thus foretelling when spring will come, those who advocate for the vibrancy of the humanities might well be asking: a year from now, will there be enough of the humanities left even to cast a shadow?
The answer is yes.
A better question is: What can the humanities tell us about the patterns of technological change we are experiencing now?
Decades of research and teaching show that this is one of many information and communication revolutions in the history of the world which cannot — and should not — be abstracted from its social, economic, cultural, and political contexts.
A transformative technology like the 15th century printing press, which used moveable type, had profound consequences. Some say that because of the way it facilitated the spread of knowledge, it led to the rise of democracy, which changed politics world-wide.
There’s no denying that automation, including machine learning, has its social costs, and that those have been unevenly distributed. And there’s no lack of research on this, much of it coming from humanities scholars.
In fact, work in the humanities repeatedly, indeed relentlessly and perhaps even monotonously, reminds us that the effects of such a huge technological shift create patterns that remain relevant for what’s happening today.
It’s a pattern of cautionary tales. And humanities teaching and research provides students with a variety of ways and means for accessing those patterns.
Algorithms can be designed for pattern recognition. Which makes them just one tool among many for discerning what is happening today. But it is holistic humanities thinking that can tell us what the things we are experiencing mean in human terms.
Because you can’t diagnose, let alone fix, a problem from within the problem.
Let me be more precise: you can’t fully grasp a problem — like the social consequences of ChatGPT — from within the confines of the problem (i.e. via ChatGPT).
That’s a historically STEM mentality. In the humanities we try to get outside the bubble of the problem and bring multiple contexts to bear. And that’s what we might call Humanities 101.
In fact, the power that knowledge of history, literature, philosophy, languages and the visual arts has to explain the present and even foretell aspects of the future is, precisely, Humanities 101.
This is basic knowledge. The kind we have to teach over and over again, to reach new generations of students, year after year. So that the interpretive methods of humanities thinking and knowing can help us understand how and why we are allowing tech to take over our lives.
As we head toward Groundhog Day, let’s stop asking ChatGPT questions. Or if you must continue that pattern, ask it why anyone who fears that the humanities are headed into perpetual winter should watch the movie again.
The answer is that, as monotonous and repetitive as it sounds, we need what the humanities makes intelligible more than ever. We need it over and over again.