Scientists Need to be Humanists Too


Oliver Hill, Jr.
Oliver Hill, Jr.

One might say that the humanities and Oliver Hill Jr. go hand-in-hand. A lifelong student of history, Hill made history himself as one of the first African American students at his Richmond high school in the early 1960s. The son of one of the leading attorneys defending Virginia’s school integration during Massive Resistance, he understood his own historical context at a very young age. As a student at Howard University, he encountered first-hand the les­sons that came from studying African history.

“Up to that point, my only knowledge of Africa consisted of what I saw in Tarzan mov­ies,” said Hill, who majored in history. Hill also took a deep interest in classical Greek and Indian philosophy. To this day, he credits his courses in philosophy and human conscious­ness with setting him on his career path in psychology.

In 2009, Governor Tim Kaine appointed Oliver Hill Jr. to the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities Board of Directors. When asked to select his favorite VFH program after five years, Hill paused.

“I was initially impressed with the depth of programming at VFH but the Virginia Indian Heritage Program really awoke my own ignorance about that part of our history.” VFH’s programming focus on Violence and Community was another one of Hill’s favorites because it fostered the idea that the humani­ties have the ability to heal. Hill also noted the important unifying potential of the humani­ties: “While there seem to be disconnects between emotion, memory, and thought, the humanities are a way of reintegrating those through creative expression.”

Currently Chair of the Psychology Department at Virginia State University, Hill incorporates the humanities into his research and classwork whenever possible. Recently, he included With Good Reason, the VFH radio program, in a significant National Science Foundation grant for his research on education in STEM–or science, technol­ogy, engineering, and math. The goal of this collaboration is to reach an audience beyond medical journal readers. Policy makers not familiar with the latest scientific findings, for example, might listen to With Good Reason. The WGR series of STEM episodes, which won an Edward R. Murrow award, included national education figures speaking on behalf of STEM and emphasized for Hill the value of using radio as a national communication tool for his research, solidifying his desire to continue the partnership with radio programming.

Hill finds the traditional distinctions between science and the humanities to be counterintuitive. On the contrary, “Scientists need to be humanists…they need to write, read, express themselves, and understand the human condition. Even in terms of brain development, much of the processing that develops from learning the humanities can be applied to learning the sciences, like critical thinking. If you look at some of the greatest scientists, they were all very creative think­ers. Einstein, for example, would always do thought experiments, which were a vivid use of imagination in developing his theories.”

Hill noted that the hallmark of a good sci­entist is an inquisitive mind, an interest in the bigger picture, and the ability to ask broader questions.

“The impact VFH has made has been mirrored in Virginia. We’ve now started to embrace the state’s whole history, including slavery and the civil rights struggle. Those things are healing the fabric of our society. This needs to happen with the rest of the country. VFH can take a lot of credit for how progressive Virginia has been in telling the whole story.”

Hill has devoted his life to that kind of education. Noting the 60 years since the Brown v. Board decision, Hill emphasizes the continuing need for higher quality schools and better integration processes. “The next step in healing the vestiges of the racial divide in this country has to do with education. Reparations are difficult but one thing this country could do is make sure that every child has access to a quality education.”

“Teachers are the key variable. Back in the days when children were taught in tarpaper shacks, the teachers were top notch so there was still some good learning in those horrible conditions. Teaching should be one of the most prestigious professions in the country and the best paid.”

Hill is also involved with the Richmond Peace Education Center and serves on the board of the Center for Contemplative Mind and Society, an organization that attempts to bring contemplative practices to higher education classrooms. In his spare time, Hill teaches yoga and meditation at retreats across the world and considers his contemplative life to be yet one more connection to the humanities.

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