Humanities and philosophy play crucial role in our world

Those who create the science and technology that’s flooding our lives are not necessarily the best people to decide how their creations should be used

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 December, 2017, 2:13am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 December, 2017, 2:13am

Who says humanities don’t pay and philosophy is useless? In fact, they can pay a lot.

Two world-renowned educators have just won HK$30 million each – yes, you read that right – from the inaugural Yidan Prize in Hong Kong. Half of the money is for the winner and the other half for her education research or project from the prize set up by tech giant Tencent co-founder Charles Chen Yidan.

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck is acknowledged for her work on “growth mindset”, which argues that intelligence is not fixed but can be developed.

Fellow winner Vicky Colbert is founder and director of Fundación Escuela Nueva (“New School” in Spanish) in Colombia, whose teaching model has transformed education at rural schools in the country and been adopted by more than a dozen others, having reached over five million children since the 1970s.

Meanwhile, Cambridge philosopher Onora O’Neill has won US$1 million from the Los Angeles-based Berggruen Institute. She is famous for applying the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant to practical ethics and social policy.

Yidan Prize winner Carol Dweck urges against cramming culture of the kind Hong Kong has become known for

In our brave new world of high technology, we are constantly reminded of the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). The world is full of prizes for whiz-kids and geniuses in those technical fields, as well as in medicine and alternative energy. Their prize money adds up, according to management consultancy McKinsey, to about US$350 million a year.

Rare are the prizes that reward pioneers in the humanities. But we need such people as much as tech wizards, especially when the world we live in becomes so hi-tech that it’s practically incomprehensible to most people. Those who create the science and technology are not necessarily the best people to decide how their creations should be used.

“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”, Robert Oppenheimer famously said after the first atomic bomb test was successful. He was quoting from the Bhagavad Gita, which he taught himself to read in the original Sanskrit.

He knew the new weapon he helped create would become a spiritual crisis for humanity, not least because it threatened its extinction. It was not just his knowledge of physics, but Hinduism, based on an understanding of its original language, that helped him navigate this crisis and led him to warn that the weapon was too destructive to be left to scientists and generals.

You have to admit a knowledge of Sanskrit wasn’t completely useless.