Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Thin Geek Line

I have just finished reading "The Ultimate Utility of Nonutility", by Lisa Colletta (Academe magazine, September-October 2010).

In it, she writes the following:

"A liberal mind is one which is independent and disinterested, aware of the history of thought, action, and reaction, and understanding of ambiguity. The liberal arts are not valuable because they are useful politically or vocationally. They are valuable because they are what constitutes real knowledge.

...I would claim that real knowledge of the real world is emphatically not the domain of the professional fields. The professions teach students skills, skills that may indeed be useful, but are too often uniformed by knowledge or thoughtfulness."

She is not alone in her dismissive attitude towards the sciences and engineering. I have seen similar opinions expressed by David Brooks of The Washington Post, Simon Jenkins of the UK's The Guardian, several other political commentators, and all too many university professors.

They remind me of the ancient Greek philosophers, debating the virtues of democracy, while surrounded by slaves and servants who do the actual work.

Apparently, her 'real' knowledge and grasp of the ephemeral nature of human constructs have failed to make her aware of the frailty of our whole civilization.

Were it not for the excess food and other resources provided by the Agricultural, Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, our comfortable lives would not be possible, the lofty ideals of the Enlightenment would be so much empty rhetoric, and democracy as we know it would not exist. In fact, without the relatively small number of technical experts, the best estimates are that 95% of humanity would starve to death within a few months.

Let her ponder that the next time she pontificates to her students.


Salis Grano said...

Couldn't agree more. The fundamental thing that people on the humanities divide of humanities/sciences so often fail to realise is that for people on the science side of the divide there is actually no divide.

Biologists and physicists are much more likely read literature and history than vice versa. Ipso facto, a scientific worldview is more comprehensive.

Paddington said...

@salis grano - I agree. Examinations show that science students perform MUCH better in the humanities and social sciences than the other way around.

James Higham said...

She is not alone in her dismissive attitude towards the sciences and engineering.

But to speak this, Paddington, is the new heresy.

Chuck said...

I am fairly certain that if you mentioned to her that the inhabitants of almost all modern cities are never more than 3-4 meals away from starvation, you would get a blank look.
It is a testament to the abilities of all making that city possible, that they are invisible to the higher intellects.

Paddington said...

@James - I do int anyway. For now, we have stopped buring heretics.

@Chuck - higher, or 'higher'?

Sackerson said...

The lady means, you technical types should serve her, just like the little man who fixes her horseless carriage. It reminded me of this anecdote:

•H. W. Garrod (…), who in 1914 was handed a white feather by a young woman in the street who glared at him and said, “How dare you stand there while everyone else is fighting to preserve civilisation?” (…) replied (…) suavely, “ I am the civilisation they are fighting to preserve.”

Richard Breen, Oxford Oddfellows & Funny Tales

Wolfie said...

What joy to be so blissfully unaware of one's mediocrity.

Paddington said...

@Wolfie - Me, or her? :-)

Wolfie said...

Your question answers itself Mr. Paddington.