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Former Supreme Court justice makes case for humanities in speech at CMU

| Friday, Oct. 10, 2014, 10:29 p.m.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Former Supreme Court Justice David Souter (right center) laughs at a reference to his New England accent from Carnegie Mellon University President Subra Suresh. Souter was visiting CMU for the John and Mary Lou Lehoczky Lecture Series at the Cohon University Center in Oakland on Friday, Oct. 10, 2014.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Former Supreme Court Justice David Souter addresses the audience during a speech at Carnegie Mellon University. Souter was there as part of the John and Mary Lou Lehoczky Lecture Series at the Cohon University Center in Oakland, Friday, Oct. 10, 2014.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Former Supreme Court Justice David Souter addresses the audience during Carnegie Mellon University's John and Mary Lou Lehoczky Lecture Series at the Cohon University Center in Oakland, Friday, Oct. 10, 2014.

Studying the humanities is vital not only to scholars but to the prosperity of the nation, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter said Friday during a visit to Carnegie Mellon University in Oakland.

Speaking in CMU's McConomy Auditorium, Souter told an audience of about 450 that the future of the innovation economy relies on a blend of imaginative thinking to capitalize on scientific disciplines.

“What the humanities and social sciences have to teach us is the variety of truth, the provisional nature of conclusions, the sources of illumination from people of other backgrounds and other perspectives,” he said, “and the magic that can occur when they are combined.”

Souter gave an hour-long address as part of the John and Mary Lou Lehoczky Lecture Series in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Philosophical and occasionally wry, with silver hair and a New England accent, Souter delivered his lecture as a litigator building an argument. He pointed to evidence in literature, history and constitutional law to show the value of examining issues from multiple perspectives.

People who study the humanities, he said, are people who “avoid the doctrinaire.”

For justices interpreting the constitution, this exercise is vital. The Bill of Rights, Sou­ter said, is full of “terse language,” intentionally vague to withstand generations.

“In desperation one has to ask the question, or one has to construe the question, what does it mean?” he said. “What must it mean as practical matter today, to these circumstances on the ground, if it is going to have any value of a constitutional guarantee at all?”

As an example, he pointed to campaign finance regulations, likely an allusion to the court's 2010 Citizens United decision allowing unlimited political spending by corporations and unions.

“We could go on right up to today, when one of the burning questions is the extent to which the First Amendment free speech guarantee can be said to mean something serious in political discourse,” he said. “That ultimately is a question of how you make the First Amendment mean something practical today, with the understanding that money buys speech.”

Souter, 75, spent 19 years as a Supreme Court justice. President George H.W. Bush nominated him in 1990 to fill the seat of retiring Justice William J. Brennan. Five months earlier, Bush had appointed Souter to the U.S. Court of Appeals. Previously, Souter was a trial judge in New Hampshire and served two years as the state's attorney general.

Souter's judicial legacy is sometimes considered moderate. In introducing Souter, CMU president Subra Suresh described the thoughtful, conscious approach Souter brought to the bench.

“An avid student of history, he urged all judges to recognize the human aspect of their decisions, and to use all the power of their hearts and minds and beings to get their decisions right,” Suresh said.

Souter closed his speech by comparing the future of education in China and the United States. In China, a focused adoption of liberal arts education to complement STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — is ramping up. Here, Souter said, public and private funding for the humanities is waning.

He urged educators and governments to enhance humanities curriculums.

“It is in the national interest, in other words, for our STEM scientists to have backgrounds in the humanities and social sciences before they get out of college. They need those habits of mind,” he said. “We would be grossly imprudent if we banked our future upon any other assumption.”

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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