Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

What’s It All About?

with 4 comments


Let me try a few more things.  First, Robert wishes I would explain what it is I would teach, instead of what it is that is actually taught now, but I want to back away from that for a little while.  Yes,  I have very strong ideas about how the liberal arts–humanities, social sciences, hard sciences, all three–should be taught, and what the content should be for everybody at large and specific groups within the university community.

And yes,  I do think that the mess we’re in now is largely caused by the fact that those things are either not taught, or are not taught well, or are taught by people who have no idea why anybody should want to learn them. 

If you look around on the main web site, you’ll see that there’s a section called Reading and Writing, and that in that section I have started to put up lists of what I think everybody should have read, as well as critical essays (okay, one so far, Hawthorne is coming) on various writers.  But I don’t want you to rely on the lists yet, either, because they don’t make much sense from the point of view of this conversation at the point we’re at now.

I want you to consider, first, what education is “for.”

And to consider, further, that it’s not “for” anything in the sense people usually ask that question.

Education–real education–will not (necessarily) make you a good human being, morally or socially.  It will not necessarily make you wise, or even sane, about public policy.  It will not make you a good doctor, lawyer, or accountant, or even a better one (again, necessarily).  It will not produce practical innovations for the marketplace.  It will not build a better mousetrap or a set of snow tires that stop your car from sliding on the ice.  

Real education is for exactly one thing:  knowledge for the sake of knowledge, knowing because knowing is a good thing in and of itself.

Real education will situate you in the Great Convesation.  It will tell you where your civilization has been and where it is and give you a little nudge so that you might be able to see where it is going.  It will open up to you all the possibilities of human life, from best to worst, so that you’ll know.

What you do with what you know is up to you.

Before you start howling out there,  I want to point out that this foundation of the liberal arts–knowing in order to know, knowledge for knowledge’s sake–is just as true of the hard sciences as of the humanities.  The only reason we don’t think so is that we’re vaguely aware that “science” gives us lots of things we like, and some we don’t.  Polio vaccine and the atom bomb–isn’t science “for” things like that?

Well, no, it isn’t.  Most scientific research has no immediate practical application, and would be conducted even if there was no prospect of ever having practical application.   Mathematics is a very useful tool for a lot of things, from buying groceries to sending a probe to Mars, but theoretical mathematics is concerned with none of them.  Theoretical mathematics is concerned with how numbers work, with problems in mathematical formulae and systems, with all kinds of things, but none of it is practical.  And do you know what theorectical mathematicians call what they do?

“Pure” mathematics.

The moral overtones are so clear they’re like being slammed over the head with the Reverend Mr. Dimsdale. 

Every one of the hard sciences does what the men and women working in the fields call “pure” research, and in every case “pure”  research has a higher prestige value than the “applied” sort.  Knowing just to know, knowing because knowing is a good in and of itself, is one of the oldest activities known to human beings and one of the ways that human beings are distinguished from all other animals, at least as far as we know to date. 

Granted, this is a hard sell.  Most people find it difficult to understand why anybody would want to do that.  Robert sent me an e-mail in which he called such an enterprise a “hobby,” and I can understand why practical people feel this way.   They always have felt this way.  That was why many Greeks thought philosophers were crazy, or maybe worse.  There’s a wonderful play by Aristophanes, called The Clouds, in which he takes Socrates apart at the joints.  His criticism of Socrates and the way of life he represents is surprisingly modern, too.  You can recognize in it many of the complaints lodged today against “radical professors” in their “ivory towers.”

Of course, Aristophanes only manages it by ascribing to Socrates a philosophical system that actually belonged to someone else, but getting the details wrong is surprisingly modern, too.

Anyway, the fact of the matter is that it’s hard to sell the public on knowledge for knowledge’s sake.  Most people want to know what you’re going to “do” with what you learn, and if they don’t get a satisfactory answer they’re likely to decide that they see no reason to pay for your pursuit.  That’s how we didn’t get the supercollider.

But the hard sciences have this advantage:  they’re difficult to understand in a way that is entirely obvious right on the surface.

Hand your average citizen a journal paper on superconductors or the behavior of quarks and he’ll take one look at the equations and decide he doesn’t understand a thing.  Hand him an essay called “Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Puritan  Legacy in New England”–the title of the one  I’m writing for the site, at the moment–and it will look enough like what he’s used to that he’ll be convinced he ought to understand it.  If he doesn’t understand it, he concludes that the fault is the writer’s ideas and presentation, not his own lack of knowledge or expertise.  The scientists are smarter than he is, but the literary critics are just producing gibberish.

Now, a note–IMPORTANT.  I am not saying that literary critics do not write gibberish.   Over the last twenty years, many of them have written nothing else.

I am saying that literary criticism–NOT book reviewing, but literary explication–is, when done properly, quite as difficult to handle, as abstract and abstruse, as any “pure” mathematics you can find, and it gets more difficult the farther you get from narrative into the history of ideas.  

Knowledge for the sake of knowledge.   Knowing just to know.  That is what a university is for–to bring together men and women engaged in this enterprise, and in many different aspects of this exercise, and give them a place where such endeavor is normal, and everyday, and average. No more philosophers sleeping in the streets, with little family and few friends and barely anybody to understand them.  

That this is not what the universities of the present are doing is obvious, too, but we have to start with what ought to be if we’re going to make a stab at understanding what is. 

The purpose of the liberal arts is knowledge for knowledge’s sake.  It is not to prepare us to do anything in the practical world, and it does not promise to so prepare us.  It will not produce practical results, except accidentally.   It would be a worthwhile way to spend time even if it never did produce those results, though.  It is a human drive as basic as the need for food and sex.   It occurs in all of us as children.  It continues in only some of us, but that may be partially our own fault.

Knowing in order to know. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake.  What has been called, through many centuries, the Life of the Mind.  Education is an introduction to the Life of the Mind–and that’s all it has to be.

One of the first great markers of an anti-intellectual culture is exactly that it demands that the Life of the Mind produce results, that it be for something, something practical, something useful, something everyday.  We’ll support physics if it will build us an atomic bomb or a nuclear power plant.  We’ll support history departments if they make us more (or less) patriotic.  We’ll support literature departments if they teach us to “analyze narratives” so that we’re better at catching the scam in advertisements.  It’s all got to be for something.  You’re majoring in philosophy?  What can you do with that?

Of course, whether or not the modern American ( or Canadian or English or Australian) university actually provides a place where teachers can live and stuents can be introduced to the Life of the Mind is another question, and more complicated than you’d think, or than it should be. 

And  I do, of course, think that spending at least some time being so introduced has certain practical effects on the way we live, because everything we do has practical effects on the way we live.  What those effects are, however, are more in the nature of habits of mind than of efficacy at deciding between the relative practical wisdom of rival public policies.

When you want to expose a person who claims to have paranormal powers, you don’t get a scientist–they’re hoodwinked more easily than two year olds.  You get a magician, who knows the tricks of the trade.   But if you want to know the nature of the atom, or the rate at which the universe is expanding (if it’s expanding at all), the magician isn’t going to help you much.

Let me duly note, here, one thing:   I am NOT proposing that Matthew Arnold’s defense of the humanities (that the study of the humanities will make each of us better people, more humane people (he would have said), than we would have been without such study) has merit.

In fact, Ithink he was wrong.

I was only using that as an example of a question for which there exists an objective answer–that is, an answer that is objectively true–but that we do not have the means to test the hypothesis to determine the truth.

There are a lot of questions out there that we don’t know how to test yet.  That doesn’t mean we should stop asking the questions, or abandon them for questions we do know how to test.

Written by janeh

October 27th, 2008 at 5:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'What’s It All About?'

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  1. You’re describing curiosity. Wanting to know about things and places and people and what other people have said and thought about things and places and people.

    Obviously, curiosity must be …indulged? practiced? with a great deal of time, effort and discipline if you want to be able to engage with certain forms of literature or science, but the basic urge can be present in a less intense form.

    I wonder if curiosity itself isn’t denigrated as much as calling on other experts is. I was once accused of being unable to think for myself because in order to clarify and support what I was saying I cited various sources. Maybe today it’s considered acceptable to have a little curiosity, and to express things with the caveat that ‘well, that’s just my opinion, yours might be different’, but not to try to show how our arguments fit into or were influenced by those of various dead worthies. This would fit with the idea that there are people who value spontaneity and novelty over connections to the past.


    27 Oct 08 at 12:29 pm

  2. OK – I agree with Jane on the importance of pure research and Cheryl is right about curiosity.

    But let me go back to Jane’s original complaint that people don’t value intelligence.

    50 years ago, when I was an undergraduate, we joked about Murphy’s Law. “If anything can go wrong, it will.”

    Since then, I have learned that sociologists have a Law of unintended consequences “All human activities have unintended consequences.”

    And I have been told that the military have a saying “No battleplan long survives contact with the enemy.”

    All three are ways of saying that humans are not omniscient and can’t foresee every possible consequence of a decision or an action.

    I expect things to go wrong!

    But when the man or woman on the street sees an expert proved wrong, its not surprising that they begin to distrust the experts.

    That may be part of the reason for the distrust of intelligence.


    27 Oct 08 at 4:00 pm

  3. I’d like to see an actual proposal–what should be taught, who gets to pick and who is expected to pay–before I decide which side I’m on. I’m funny that way. But a couple of points:

    When I called the humanities a hobby it wasn’t altogether derogatory. I think everyone would be better off having an interest outside of work, if only for the very practical reasons that this lends perspective and helps maintain flexibility in thinking. Whole states have been destroyed–Sparta is a prime example–because people were so focussed they not only couldn’t see other goals, they couldn’t see other means of reaching the goals.

    And we all have things we love and would wish to study unhindered. But if you propose to compel your fellow citizens–to take their money or their time–or even if you just want them to give their money and time–they certainly ought to ask why, and I don’t think “the thing in itself” constitutes a valid answer.

    I can generally be counted on to support the study and teaching of history in a democracy because it has practical applications. I quite frankly don’t believe either of our two leading presidential candidates would be making some of their current proposals had they studied the relevant history–and they wouldn’t be getting anywhere with the proposals had the voters studied the history. I also support the study and teaching of “pure” sciences because they have a track record of turning practical quickly and unexpectedly. Prestige in a profession to which I do not belong concerns me not a whit.

    But so far I keep seeing things which I regard very differently bundled together, and I don’t think I’m the only one who would feel that way. Thomas Jefferson keeps coming up in the discussion. Would it be appropriate to ask how much music, dance and modern literature was in the curiculum when he was involved with the College of Virginia?

    Mind you, I enjoy some music and some literature, even of the more prestigious sorts. But I’ve paid for my own CDs, literature and criticism. If someone else wishes to choose for me, he had best have a VERY good reason.

    As for “ivory towers” I have never in my life heard an academic criticised for being such. But when they want to endorse politicians or campaign for particular public policies, they’re subject to the same comments about pertinent knowlege, prior experience and financial interests as the rest of us. Ought it to be otherwise?


    27 Oct 08 at 5:33 pm

  4. I think every culture has to have a way of passing down what it is – where it comes from, where it’s going, what it has concluded about human nature and how human nature should be expressed, controlled and understood it its particular society. This isn’t to say that cultures don’t change, or that they don’t take in and assimilate outside influences; obviously, they do. ‘Western’ culture is based on Middle-Eastern culture (most obviously, via Christianity) and classical Roman and Greek culture to name just the major influences – there are also of course others. The US based its entire system of government on ideas out of the French and British thinking of the time. Studying the humanities is a way of knowing who you are and where you come from.

    All classic literature was at one point modern literature, and, yes, people sometimes tend to be cautious about adding new work to the canon. But modern literature (or, rather, some of it) does end up being taught.

    I wish I’d had the chance to learn the kind of dancing I came to love as an adult when I was a child, and that I’d made more of the chance I had to learn a bit about music then, too. But if a school is restricted in some way (small enrollment, lack of money), I suppose music, dance, art and sport should be the first to go out of the curriculum. But if you don’t have reading and writing, you don’t have a school. (Well, OK, barring a school *for* arts, sports, etc., but even they usually insist on reading, writing, math and science).

    I’m very surprised you haven’t heard the ‘ivory tower’ criticism of academics. Although the term may be slightly dated, I’ve heard the criticism throughout my life. Academics are isolated from real life. They waste their time on silly trivialities and can’t even understand real people, whose jobs aren’t protected by tenure, or real issues. They can’t even be said to *have* jobs, since all they do is read books and meet with students once in a while. And they don’t read proper books, interesting books. They read the kind of stuff that doesn’t even make sense; that no sensible person in the real world would bother with.

    I could go on. This attitude is quite common. In a mild (and far more realistic) way it also informs all those anectdotess about the small town kid who comes home from a first-year course in psychology and tries to explain what people are REALLY like to his elderly grandfather, who never got out of high school, but who has Experience of Life.


    28 Oct 08 at 6:12 am

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