Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Need To Know Basis

with 6 comments

Before I get really started here, I’d like to pint out  a few things.

Phyiscs is a liberal arts subject.

Chemistry is a liberal arts subject.

Biology is a liberal arts subject.

Mathematics is a liberal arts subject.

The liberal arts come in three divisions:  natural sciences, social scienes, and humanities.

I’m pretty sure that what John was trying to do was to compare the natural sciences with the HUMANITIES.

Okay, now I’m shouting.

But this makes me nuts.  I don’t know when people started using “liberal arts” to mean the Humanities alone, but that’s not what the liberal arts are. 

Maybe I wouldn’t get so crazy about this if it wasn’t for the fact that it always seems to end with  John’s question.

To quote verbatim, John says, “I do know what happened on Dec 7, 1941 but is it necessary for students to know that?”

The answer is:  Yes.

In fact, students not only need to know that, they need to know it far more than they need to know any of the science, even if they’re intending to be scientists.

The intellectual, cultural, and political history of human life on this planet is the record of a vast real-life experiment in the consequences of ideas.

If we know the content of those three histories and can put that content in sequential order–that’s why the dates–we can see what the results of certain policies and assumptions have been. 

That gives us at least some basis for deciding on what we want our next policies to be, and on what assumptions we want to encourage our societies to adopt.

And these decisions are not academic.

Go out and listen to any public debate on abortion in this country, or any  apologia for euthanasia or “physician assited suicide.” 

Virtually all the arguments in favor of these policies that you can find come out of a particular German philosophic tradition that starts with Hegel and hasn’t ended yet.  All those arguments are made vigorously in Mein Kampf, and were a vital part of the social assumptions underlying not only the Holocaust but half the history of the Soviet Union and various other interesting experiments in social engineering, although on a smaller scale.

This is not a negligible fact.  There is something about this set of assumptions–this way of thinking about human beings–that leads to places we really don’t want to go.

But if you don’t know that those ideas were already tried and their consequences witnessed and examined, they don’t sound,. read naked and outside the context of their history, as if they’re going to end you up in that particular place.

It’s as if we had a huge board full of standing dominoes.  We push over Domino Number 3 on our side of the board, fully expecting it to topple a line of dominoes that will end at  Domino 527.  Instead, as we watch, the line suddenly veers to the right and we end at Domino 761 instead.

Progress–and there is progress; think of antibiotics and vaccines and the end of human slavery–requires time, talent, and the right intellectual conditions.   It’s not an accident that experimental science rose first in the West and nowhere else, or that no culture has yet been able to succeed scientifically except insofar as it is willing to adopt central Western philosophical ideas–like the sanctity of free inquiry and freedom of the press, the importance of telling the truth over protecting cultural icons and traditions, the primacy of the individual over the family, the Church, the state.

If you want to be able to go on doing physics, you’d better hope to hell my kids know when Pearl Harbor happened and why it happened and what it meant.  In fact, you ought to hpe that even if all you want is to be spared the “help” of some nurse who decides that anybody who is as old and sick as you are would want to die, if they were just being rational about it.

Peter Singer is not an aberration.  He is the inevitable outcome of a certain process of thought.  Ideas not only have consequences, they have very specific consequences.  Peter Singer sits in an endowed chair in bioethics because not enough people know those things the Humanities contain.

I agree that the Humanities are taught very badly these days.  Their substantive content is not hierarchical,  but it does exhibit clear lines of sequential progression, and understanding those progressions–how you get from Hegel to  Marx to both  Hitler and Stalin; how the Christian emphasis of the infinite importance of each individual soul led to John Locke, Adam Smith and the liberal democratic state (in the classical sense–as in favor of democracy over monarchy and limited government)–is vital to understanding and evaluating what’s going on now.

Science exists within the context of intellectual history.  It is not outside it, and it is not superior to it.   It needs very particular cultural conditions to exist at all, and those conditions are always fragile. 

So, yeah.  A students needs to know what Pearl Harbor was, and when it was, and why it happened.  He needs to know a lot more than that.

Science is nice, but it’s essentially secondary.  If we don’t do th is first and most basically, science will cease to exist at all.

So  I didn’t think it was negligible when one of my students said to another yesterday, “Oh, no, the answer can’t be B.  The Black Plague didn’t happen in the 1950s.  It was really ancient, like the 1700s.”

Although that wasn’t my favoite comment from the day.

That goes to the conversation between two young women, trying to puzzle out the answer when asked to identify Jackie Robinson.

“Okay,” one of them said.  “We can rule out this–girls don’t play hockey.”

Written by janeh

April 23rd, 2009 at 6:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Need To Know Basis'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Need To Know Basis'.

  1. Amen.

    I’ve done my share of arguing some of these issues, and finding out that people don’t know it’s all been argued before – and we’ve seen where they go.

    I just don’t have any solutions to the situation.

    You did remind me of a high school student who came to my little cubbyhole where I was playing something instrumental on my CD player – I can’t remember what; from my memory of my taste at the time, probably something vaguely folky. She looked at me with some awe, as at some peculiar phenomenon, and said ‘That must be classical music – it doesn’t have any words.’

    Music is a liberal art too, isn’t it?


    23 Apr 09 at 7:46 am

  2. My exclamation on learning our government planned to “help” the economy by printing more money? “Doesn’t anybody remember the Weimar Republic???”

    I was relieved to find my 21 year old son did in fact remember the relevant facts. Apparently our government economists do not. Grrr.

    So yeah. I absolutely agree that the liberal arts, including all those pesky cultural references, do in fact make a big difference.


    23 Apr 09 at 2:09 pm

  3. I am much in favor of cultural knowlege and especially history, but you may be giving ignorance too much credit. I would at least keep in mind the possibility that Singer and his supporters know pretty well where such ideas come from and much better where they lead. History teaches us the consequences of ideas and behavior. It will not tell us right from wrong–though being morally neutral, it’s a better guide than the average philosopher.


    23 Apr 09 at 4:19 pm

  4. Well, at least I gave Jane something to write about. But I think she has lost one battle. My undergraduate university has a School of “Arts and Sciences” and MIT has a “School of Science” and a “School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Science”.

    Yes, I do consider History to be relevant but I don’t consider the date of Pearl Harbor to be important. The lesson I learned from World War 2 was drawn from the Munich Agreement (Peace in our times), the German-Soviet Friendship Treaty, and the Yalta agreements. Negotiating with dictators only buys time. They will break the agreements any time they think they no longer benefit from them.

    Some science fiction novels I’m reading put the point another way. Alliances are based on mutual benefit.

    Lymaree, I am also thinking of the German Hyperinflation and making an effort to increase the amount of canned food I have on hand. :(


    23 Apr 09 at 5:10 pm

  5. Heh, jd. My son’s comment, on my Weimar Republic exclamation, was, “We should be stocking up on wheelbarrows.” He may have something there.


    23 Apr 09 at 10:27 pm

  6. Lymaree, If I remember correctly, I once read that people collected their daily pay in wheelbarrows at the peak of the inflation. But I don’t guarantee that the story is true.


    24 Apr 09 at 12:37 am

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 343 access attempts in the last 7 days.