Monday, August 10, 2009

The Two Cultures in My Head

This is a re-post of something on my old blog for a debate I'm having elsewhere on the internet. My views about the two cultures are complex and conflicting, but ultimately, driven by my shit-hit-the-fan outlook on life. If space in the lifeboat is limited, would I rather take the physics major or the English major with me? Well, assuming that neither are sociopaths, the choice is obvious - unless the English major is an Eagle Scout or a Civil War re-enactor.

What follows is a post I wrote back in 2006:

This piece by the Big Arm Woman the Blue Collar Scholar got me to thinking about the relationship of the humanities to the sciences in my own life.

Here’s the punchline from BAW’s post:

Academics should be worried, and not about David Horowitz, because it seems to me that--fair or not--we're heading toward a place where "learning for its own sake," no longer justifies the expense, and the consequences will be dire indeed--and not just for the academics.

I’ve heard this sentiment from professors in the sciences, too. Learning for learning’s sake is no longer the primary mission of the Academy, and it has not been for decades. In order for that to be true again, the Academy would have to give back an awful lot of the resources that society tosses its way, especially in the sciences.

Most of us went to college to get useful skills. Maybe not directly useful right away, but potentially useful nonetheless. Most of us dabbled in our interests, too, but that’s not the primary reason for going to school these days. The reasons that I chose not to finish a Ph.D. in Slavic Literature had more to do with the additional time it would have taken from my life and lack of return on that investment, rather than disinterest in the subject matter – I wanted to start a career. But if Slavic Literature had been my only major, what could I have done with that Ph.D. except teach? We as a society are spending an awful lot of resources on students who major disciplines that do not require large numbers of practitioners in order to be viable parts of our society. The most common majors are not ones that one thinks of when one talks about education creating a highly economically competitive society in the 21st Century.

The ubiquity of student loans means that society, rightly or wrongly, sees a university education as imparting skills that society needs, rather than as a provider of interior decorations that make your mind a more interesting place in which to live. My opinion as a taxpayer is that if you want to decorate your mind, do it on your own dime. ROTC programs give a lot more scholarships in technical disciplines than in the humanities, and I’d like to see quotas imposed on civilian student loans, as well.

That’s not to say that I discount the value of the humanities disciplines. An education that ignores where a student and the surrounding culture have come from makes for a very poor sort of person - I’ve seen plenty of those sorts of people from the PRC.* An education totally at the hands of the peckerwoods in the science and engineering departments also makes for a poor sort of voter, and I do somewhat buy into the notion that educated people should be a bit of the salt of the Earth to the Electorate. Just not at the rate we’re turning out English and Communications majors. To take the analogy to a silly extreme, techies and professionals are the sodium chloride in the salt, and humanities majors are the sodium iodide. Without the iodide the body politic will get sick, but you don’t need too much of it either.

Some of the most fulfilling intellectual activities in my own life have been connected with my two passions in the humanities: history and languages. There is nothing like stepping into a historic place that you’ve read and read about, just to feel the ghosts of the personages from your books whisper in your ear. The first time I walked up the hill from the Moscow Metro to Red Square was such a moment – seeing Lenin’s Tomb and Ivan the Terrible’s cathedral to honor St. Basil (and his own victory over the Tartars) in one glance gives one a staggering view into the scope of Russian history. But without that sense of perspective, I’d be a poorer person, but just as valuable an economic actor by virtue of my chemistry degree. If I’d studied history, most likely I’d have needed additional training in law or business to enter the non-academic workforce. If I’d done that, I don’t see why any of you should have paid for my intellectual peregrinations in the form of student loans.

This whole debate reminds me of John Ray’s "Are We Overeducated" :

All education is not of equal value and our investment in certain categories of it may well need critical examination. It will be submitted here that, at both secondary and tertiary levels, too much value is attached today to education in the 'humanities' and that such education does not bring the benefits claimed for it.

it seems particularly hard to justify the demands that are made on the taxpayer to subsidise this form of recreation. Education is hugely expensive and tends to be a form of recreation most favoured by the more affluent sections of society. Why 'Joe the worker' has to pay more for his beer and cigarettes so I can study Chaucer free of cost I do not know. It can surely only be described as a monstrous injustice -- robbing the poor to pay the rich. If justice and equity were our concern, it would be fairer to subsidise horseracing. More people enjoy it.

I do not agree with Ray’s premise elsewhere in that article that there is no fungibility in knowledge. The utility of the study of literature is literature’s ability to distill and humanize human experience into manageable and meaningful packages. That broadens my mental experience to include (vicariously, but still better than nothing) the experiences of many people I would never otherwise encounter in my life.

I remember clearly the overview class in Russian Literature that solidified my views on monasticism. We were discussing “The Three Old Men” by Tolstoy, and I came to the conclusion that those men were holy because they had no temptations, and that was not holiness, but rather laziness and absence of temptation that led to their sin-free life. I also then came to the conclusion, at age 23, that raising kids was one of the hardest and most meaningful activities that a human could engage in, and by severing his protagonists from that aspect of life (this story was written after Tolstoy had fathered his 13 kids and then decided that sex was bad, bad, bad…), he’d taken such a huge part of the human experience away that I could not respect their spiritual pronouncements. Sort of the way I look at the Catholic priesthood now.** All this was a complicated digression to prove my point: my views on this subject would be considerably poorer and less thought out if it weren’t for the literature classes I was taking. I certainly have never interacted much with monks (other than buying their wine), so this was a way for me to broaden my mental life in a concentrated dose. This makes me a more educated voter when issues spiritual spring up in the public domain. But studying only literature does a disservice to the student who is really not mentally capable of sorting wheat from chaff without actually having some experiences in the physical world, and like it or not, that describes the vast majority of humanity. I think most people need to major in something practical in order to make any sense out of literature.

On the flip side, an awful lot of techies don’t give a rat’s about much outside their discipline, and making them take a few classes isn’t going to change that. I was never one of those techies who said “why do I have to take this?”. But I knew a lot of people who did. BAW commented that her advisor used to elegantly argue:

"You can go to any community college or vocational school to be trained for a job. You chose to come to a university, which means that on some level you value the life of the mind. And that means you're bright enough to understand that what I'm teaching you matters."

I don’t think that is an elegant argument at all. First of all, a technical school does not teach one how to become an engineer. It teaches one how to become a technician – the difference is the same difference that lies between an inventor and a tinkerer. I know I would have been insulted by someone insinuating that the only thing distinguishing me from a plumber were a few gut courses in English Lit. And Universities aren’t the only places that value the life of the mind: I attended an Institute of Technology that had a tremendous required load of humanities, and allowed us to take our pick totally free of suggestions***, as long as the course levels were high enough.

Engineers have been forced to take all kinds of humanities classes all through their high school and college lives, and very often have come into contact with Marxist, radical feminist, and many other “ist” teachers whose version of reality is not the same as the one the students, or other rational people, see in their real lives. I’d never assume that students had enough of a background, or a good enough experience in previous courses, to be able to sort a good teacher from bad within the first week of class, when this kind of question usually gets asked. I have a similar analogy for techies. When I was TAing the ridiculously low-level, non-honors General Chemistry course at Big U, I ran into a lot of students who hated math. What they thought they were going to do in a technical field baffled me, but the situation was what it was, and I had to teach them. My usual retort to “why did we have to learn all that crap in high school math?” was: “that stuff is in the cannon because it was used to solve a practical problem, and you might either run into that same problem, or more likely need to use a solution derived from that math, in your career, and you need to understand the basics before you can derive anything”. My retort to “I hate math” was “I’ve banged my hand with enough hammers that I don’t love them either, but when I want to drive a nail, I reach for one. Math is a tool. Either learn how to keep from banging your hand with it (most of the time), or get out of the carpentry business.” What I did not do was assume that their experience to this point had allowed them the intellectual vantage to see that all this stuff would be good for them down the road.

So I think that BAW’s advisor’s line is out of line, and that a little humility is in order from departments that have let the Po-Mo rot set into their disciplines so badly. The fact that our technical departments have to offer watered-down versions of physics or chemistry for humanities majors, while we techies take the real deal in the humanities departments, should also make for some humility in the humanities. Science has made for more human progress than any other discipline in the academy with the possible exception of mechanical and civil engineering. It’s only natural that, seeing this, engineering majors and scientists would say “why do we need this crap?”. The correct answer is not “don’t ask me that stupid question, you’re intelligent enough to understand why”, but “ask me that again when the course is over”. But that last answer requires that at least some of the selection of works to study has relevance to the topics of life that the kids are concerned about, and that the discussion turn to those topics.

If I were a humanities prof, I’d turn the question around: why do you think the authors felt compelled to write these works, and why have so many people found them useful through the ages? Unfortunately that presupposes a cannon. Disciplines that have let the Po-Mo barbarians through the gates to gut the cannon have done a way with a great temporal filter to sort metal from dross. Given the subject matter of BAW’s blog - and the fact that she’s a fellow Southerner ;-) - I have a feeling that she made a good choice of advisors, and that her advisor was on the side of the angels in the debate over the cannon, but even for a good teacher, that kind of retort won’t win friends from techies who’ve been forced to jump through Po-Mo hoops in other classes.

I know of a Physical Chemistry Prof who forbade fiction books in his house for his kids. He led a life almost entirely of the mind, albeit with a mathematical flavor – not a literary one. And he was no less a productive chemist for eschewing literature, although I might argue that he was a bigger peckerwood because of it. In the end, I think that my own proclivities in the humanities were fed more by my own curiosity than by any class I ever took, which somewhat gives lie to that “life of the mind” argument. Either you live in that space, or you don’t. Classes have nothing to do with it. I’ll let John Ray have his say on that with regards to literature requirements:

Initially, one must note that what one learns in such a course is literary criticism, not how to write novels, plays etc. Only a tiny minority of our successful writers are English graduates and an even tinier minority of our English graduates are successful writers. A course in English is not, then, vocational training of any sort. It is supposed simply to help you appreciate existing literature better. I would submit, however, that the number of people who become better trained for leisure in this way is infinitesimally small. Who would undertake a university course in English who did not enjoy reading novels? Who reads more novels because he has done English? Who needs an English course to help him enjoy plays? Who has ever been converted to reading poetry because of an English course? I think there is little doubt that to all these questions only one answer can be given: very few indeed. At the secondary school level, I think that there can he little doubt that the study of English literature often has a deterrent effect. How many generations of school-children have come to hate Shakespeare and Dickens because they were forced to study them at school?

Well, I hate Dickens because I hate melodrama, but point taken.

We are heading for the point where society is going to question the return on the enormous investment we’ve made in education. It’s now not possible to get an entry level job without a Bachelor’s, when those jobs used to go to high school graduates. And one can argue that those people holding the sheepskin are less capable than their grandparents who only got through high school. I really would like to see a quota for the number student loans given to humanities majors. I’m not sure that the consequences would be that dire – for everyone except the humanities departments. And you just know that the politically adept Po-Mo idiots will use the resulting budget cuts to further consolidate their position and kill off what is left of utility in a humanities education: Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war; That this foul deed shall smell above the earth With carrion men, groaning for burial.

* Not so much in students from the USSR (when there was such a country), where the life of the mind was perhaps too much in the forefront of the culture. But the PRC turned out many, many students who had no idea of their own, or anyone else’s history, and so were easily manipulated. I remember taking one Chinese grad student down to the WWI memorial. It seems that in China they taught that the US had opportunistically joined in WWI to reap reparations form Germany, and that our casualties had been numbered in the hundreds. I took this student to see the memorial, in which the KIAs numbered in the hundreds for the city and its environs, and asked if this student thought our city had been the only one to furnish troops for the war. History is important, perhaps the most important of the humanities. And literature illuminates history.

** Anyone who argues that priests are responsible for their parish as sort of proxy children has not learned the lesson of riding as a passenger in a car to a place they’ve never been before, and then later having to drive back there by themselves without navigation aids: there’s a huge difference in being totally responsible for something and just being along for the ride with some “here’s your street” comments.

*** Therein lies one of the origins of the complaint “why do we have to take this crap?”. Students have to pick from several groups of classes at big state universities, and those requirements are politically driven by the profs. With the exception of Economics as my social science requirement, and a Western History overview class, I took all Russian Language or Russian Literature classes. No one told me I had to go take an East Asian class to fulfill someone’s idea of a well-rounded education – at the time, I could not have cared less about China or Japan and would have been amazed if you’d told me that in 15 years’ time I’d be speaking Japanese and learning Chinese. By allowing me to discover the world through courses I was actually interested in, I picked up a lot of literature and art that I would have just forgotten in a stand-alone required class. A lot of humanities departments force their subjects down students’ throats and offer the worst teachers and most boring subjects to the general education population, so they are reaping the whirlwind when they get the “what the use of this sh!t?” questions.


Janiece Murphy said...

I’d like to see quotas imposed on civilian student loans, as well.

If I'm financially responsible for the payment of such a loan, then the choice of what to major in should be mine, not some government bureaucrat.

Grants, however, are a different matter. The government should be able to shape the output of their investment in this case, just as my company will pay for my education through tuition assistance only if my major relates to the work I do for them.

Or as I tell the teens, "you don't get to beg and boss at the same time."

John the Scientist said...

"If I'm financially responsible for the payment of such a loan, then the choice of what to major in should be mine, not some government bureaucrat."

But you're not, totally, because the interest is subsidized.

creakypavillion said...

You can't expect the humanities/English professors to understand the difference between trade school and the university engineering; well, I guess deep down they do suspect there are vast "steppes" of science/complexities/sophistication in between, but their inferiority complex (well-funded) about their profession wouldn't let them to admit it.

This (very good written) post reminded me of an old rather heated conversation I had with an ex-English and baroque history major who claimed her job is to write emails for the dumb inarticulate "hard sciences" professionals. See the comments' thread.

About that "catholic priesthood vs. raising kids" example: funny, if you'd want to convince me, I wouldn't understand the driving example (I'm a passenger all my life), but I did raise a son, so your examples would work in sorta upside-down fashion.


PS Russian, Japanese AND Chinese?

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