Thursday, October 30, 2014

The LA Ghetto

The liberal arts, or education appropriate to a free person, originally consisted of the Trivium: grammar, rhetoric, and logic, and the Quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. As knowledge and universities became more specialized, the liberal arts continued at first to encompass much of the curriculum, including science and mathematics.

Various forces seem to have propelled more and more studies into science, engineering, business, fine arts and other distinct colleges, while what was left of the traditional liberal arts became ghettoized into a Humanities college, a mini-university of people who counted on their fingers, often with only history, literature, philosophy, and some fragments of language studies as their subject matter, or sometimes lumped a bit uncomfortably with social sciences like anthropology and psychology.

Naturally this loss of centrality has the liberal arts professoriate angry, disoriented and perhaps dazed and confused. At a time when students are graduating from school with mountains of debt, they and their parents want to believe that they are learning something relevant. It's sort of clear that a degree in engineering, accounting, or even mathematics prepares you for a potentially middle class job, but what about that liberal arts degree? If one is lucky, that literature or history degree, plus some secondary ed courses, might get you a job teaching high school. And what the heck is an art history degree good for? Unpaid work as a museum docent?

"We teach critical thinking" respond the professors of liberal arts. Pish posh, I say. If you want to learn critical thinking, you might try statistics.

I might sound like I'm picking on the liberal arts types. Could my skepticism be nothing more than the old time grudge of a science nerd who remembered the philosophy majors taking bong hits, discussing Camus, and getting laid while we, the citizens of geekdom, labored at interminable problem sets? Of course not! For one thing, dope didn't invade the Campus big time until I was a grad student.

Actually, I would like to defend the worth of the liberal arts, even if they did let the crucial disciplines of math, science, and rhetoric slip from their grasp. Literature and history are about story and narrative, and story and narrative form the core of human thought - even in math and science. The first female winner of the Fields medal, the premier accolade in mathematics, mentioned that her childhood ambition had been to be a novelist - though now the characters in her narratives were mathematical objects. The mathematician's pen, like that of the poet, captures:

...the forms of things unknown, ... Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing A local habitation and a name. Such tricks hath strong imagination,......................... WS, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act V, Scene 1.

Literature and History remain the central domain of narrative in its purest and original form. That's not a trivial role.

A very superior student I know, like many had trouble making up his mind about a major, so he spent a couple of years in the University's honors program before picking a more specialized major. I asked him what he learned there.

"How to write a five page essay," he replied.

A very non-trivial skill.