Tom Gilson

One Root of Our Problems; No, Two Roots

John Brockman, Publisher and Editor of the influential science-oriented website Edge, wrote this week:

What I wrote in 1991 in “The Emerging Third Culture”, still pertains today:

A 1950s education in Freud, Marx, and modernism is not a sufficient qualification for a thinking person in the 1990s. Indeed, the traditional American intellectuals are, in a sense, increasingly reactionary, and quite often proudly (and perversely) ignorant of many of the truly significant intellectual accomplishments of our time. Their culture, which dismisses science, is often nonempirical. It uses its own jargon and washes its own laundry. It is chiefly characterized by comment on comments, the swelling spiral of commentary eventually reaching the point where the real world gets lost….

Given the well-documented challenges and issues we are facing as a nation, as a culture, how can it be that there are no science books (and hardly any books on ideas) on the New York Times 100 Notable Books of the Year list; no science category in the Economist Books of the Year 2007; only Oliver Sacks in the New Yorker’s list of Books From Our Pages?

Instead of having science and technology at the center of the intellectual world—of having a unity in which scholarship includes science and technology along with literature and art—the official culture has kicked them out. Science and technology appear as some sort of technical special product. Elite universities have nudged science out of the liberal arts undergraduate curriculum—and out of the minds of many young people, who, arriving at their desks at the establishment media, have so marginalized themselves that they are no longer within shouting distance of the action. Clueless, they don’t even know that they don’t know.

But science today is changing our understanding of our universe and species, and scientific literacy is indispensable to dealing with some of the world’s most pressing issues. Fortunately, we live in a time when third culture intellectuals—scientists, science journalists, and other science-minded writers—are among of our best nonfiction writers, and their many engaging books have brought scientific insight to a wide audience.

Brockman says we don’t know enough, don’t care enough about science. He sees it as one root of our problems. Agreed. Our culture is ignorant on important science topics, so that demagoguery can run free among us. We face terribly significant science-related questions, and we’re at the mercy of competing views of people who claim to know. If science is completely missing from this NY Times list, that’s alarming.

A Deeper Root

More alarming yet, though, is Brockman’s “A 1950s education in Freud, Marx, and modernism is not a sufficient qualification for a thinking person in the 1990s.” Well, of course he’s right. It’s no longer sufficient. It’s laughably lacking. It always was, even in the 50s, if anybody actually thought it was sufficient then.

What about education in the Biblical roots of our culture? Can any Westerner be educated without that? What about learning some of the history of ideas, and how to handle them? What about this great question about what our schools might teach, from Phillip Johnson, writing on “Harvard’s End” in Touchstone?

What does it mean to be a good person, and why should anyone even want to be a good person, as opposed to a successful person?

Brockman threw a nod in this article at books on ideas. Even the Edge edition in which he wrote this is not averse to ideas, certainly. (I wish I had time to blog on everything in there; it’s a great source for interesting discussion-starters.)

Still, if he didn’t come out and say all our answers are to be found in science, he at least skirted dangerously close. We have yet to find the science, though, that can tell us what it means to be a good person. Maybe, though, that’s not part of being qualified to be “a thinking person in the 1990s,” or in the 21st century either.

That kind of thinking is a deeper root of deeper problems than the ones Brockman worries about.

Update, 1:00 pm: I want to strongly direct your attention to an outstanding article on this topic by Dorothy Sayers, which Havoc mentioned in a comment a short while ago. Here’s an excerpt to illustrate the article’s relevance:

The modern boy and girl are certainly taught more subjects–but does that always mean that they actually know more?

Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that today, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard of and unimagined? Do you put this down to the mere mechanical fact that the press and the radio and so on have made propaganda much easier to distribute over a wide area? Or do you sometimes have an uneasy suspicion that the product of modern educational methods is less good than he or she might be at disentangling fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible?

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3 thoughts on “One Root of Our Problems; No, Two Roots

  1. As a teacher (new and idealistic) in a small, Christian school, I have had my long-simmering interest in “classical education” ignited recently. I am very excited to find that the education I’ve been trying to redeem for myself is greatly honored by others, and that there are many resources out there to return education to it’s high place.

    The universities of the middle ages were places that taught science, rhetoric, language and logic, but they also did this for the purpose of making their pupils [i]good people[/i].

    I really like this Dorthy Sayers essay on education: The Lost Tools of Learning.

  2. The Sayers essay (actually a 1940’s Oxford lecture) was pivotal in my wife’s and my decision to educate our children using the Classical model based on the Trivium. Though it’s all great, one of my my favorite quotes from that essay is this:

    For we let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armor was never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects.

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