Lucy’s Burning Question and the Indispensability of the Liberal Arts

I don’t feel pain, fear, desire. It’s like, all things that make us human are fading away. It’s like, the less human I feel, all this knowledge about everything—quantum physics, applied mathematics, the infinite capacity of the cell’s nucleus—they’re all exploding inside my brain—all this knowledge. I don’t know what to do with it. – Lucy, from the film Lucy, 2014.

LucyScreenScience fiction cinema, on its best day, weaves compelling narratives about science fact in order to question and grapple with the ramifications of human technologies and discoveries. Filmmakers in the genre uses the creative imagination to explore “what if” scenarios fictionally and allow viewers to wrest some wisdom from the stunning new knowledge that has invaded the collective consciousness.

This is the case with Lucy, a 2014 film directed by Luc Besson. The film’s eponymous protagonist gains the ability to unlock her total brain potential from a massive amount of a nootropic drug that is accidentally absorbed into her bloodstream. As Lucy’s brain potential expands far beyond the mythical ten percent limit of the average human, the audience joins her in an exhilarating rush of exponential knowledge gathering. The trailer provides a quick rundown of the plot.

It’s important not to take the dubious neuroscience of Lucy too seriously. It’s Lucy’s question about what to do with “all this knowledge” that is the serious topic Besson is exploring.

Recently an article in The Washington Post by Fareed Zakaria struck a nerve among college professors in the Liberal Arts and Humanities, garnering extensive sharing and discussion on social media. “Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous” was a passionate and reasoned argument for the enduring need for a broad education in the Liberal Arts and Humanities.

Technology alone is not enough — that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing. – Steve Jobs

In his article, Zakaria references technology moguls Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs who have each made statements stressing the need for a Liberal Arts education rich in the Humanities—even over and above STEM fields.

And while these are powerful supports for his argument, one can go back much further to a Canadian literature professor who predicted each technology and the resulting industries Bezos, Zuckerberg and Jobs represent—more than 40 years before those technologies arrived.

some textIt’s not hard to find examples of Marshall McLuhan’s uncannily accurate predictions of the Internet,, Wikipedia and social media. McLuhan observed the twentieth century evolution of electronic technology as a means to move information and communicate at light speed—from the telegraph, to the tabulating mainframe computer, to the television, to global networks. This explosion of human knowledge and connectivity demanded creative thinking to help anticipate and understand how this technology would profoundly affect human culture. In many ways, Lucy’s question drove and inspired him.

Yet his prescience and insight did not emanate from an education confined to STEM fields. McLuhan was an English literature professor. His ability to probe communication and information technology and reach into the future to ascertain their effects was borne from his deep understanding of the humanities. At their core, his prognostications were the product of his inventive imagination, drawing upon a literary mind, extrapolating the role of media and technology in the human narrative.

Writing on this topic in the Cross Check blog for Scientific American, John Horgan, an author and teacher at the Stevens Institute of Technology, discussed the argument he makes to his students for emphasizing the humanities in his science courses:

Science has replaced religion as our main source of answers…. Science has told us a lot about ourselves, and we’re learning more every day. But the humanities remind us that we have an enormous capacity for deluding ourselves. – John Horgan

some textAs Zakaria touches on in his article, the importance of art and culture is coded in the DNA of the computer and Internet revolution. Steve Jobs studied design and typography before dropping out of college and co-founding Apple Computer. He had this to say about computer science and programming in a 1995 interview with Robert X. Cringley:

I think everyone should learn how to program a computer, because it teaches you how to think. I view computer science as a liberal art, something everyone should learn to do. – Steve Jobs

Embedded in Job’s statement is the notion that the Liberal Arts play the linchpin role in teaching one how to think.

For Lucy, this is about asking what to do with “all this knowledge.”

This is the same question that must continually be raised by culture’s poets, writers, filmmakers, artists:

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? – T. S. Eliot, The Rock, 1934

Seeking to answer new questions raised by “all this knowledge” demands the cultivation of a prophetic imagination—something only the Humanities and Liberal Arts can bring to the party. They are indispensable companions to STEM in the cultural endeavor.

Consider America’s vast entertainment industry, built around stories, songs, design and creativity. All of this requires skills far beyond the offerings of a narrow STEM curriculum. – Fareed Zakaria

Beyond raising crucial questions, a commercially successful and entertaining film such as Lucy provides a strong argument for the Liberal Arts because it is an artistic product itself—a product that draws heavily upon STEM to serve the narrative. In this case, the art of film, itself, answers the question of what to do with all this knowledge: Create culture.


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