Arts and Sciences: A Panoramic Guide for the Perplexed

In my previous blog post, I wrote about the liberal arts and sciences. In describing the “philosophical chamber” of Harvard College in the 18th century, I suggested that at one time, knowledge was more fluid; both students and scholars moved easily among philosophy, natural science, history, music and other “subjects.” Indeed, they may not have thought about those epistemic “bins.”

In the last two centuries, there has been a strong and perhaps inevitable trend toward a discipline-based typology of knowledge. And whether or not people embrace or even know the phrase “arts and sciences,” we all know about the organization of secondary school and higher education in terms of “disciplines” or “subjects.”

Nonetheless, it is highly like that most students who arrive in college know little about the range of subjects and, in addition, may have limited or misleading notions of what discipline-based scholars actually do. To delve into this issue, Dartmouth computer scientist Dan Rockmore asked 27 present and former faculty colleagues at Dartmouth College to introduce their respective subject matters—ranging alphabetically from “African American Studies,” “Anthropology,” and “Art History” to “Sociology,” “Theater,” and “Women’s and Gender Studies”—in his book What Are the Arts and Sciences?: A Guide for the Curious. The volume provides a useful and intriguing panorama of the subject matters examined at any liberal arts school of reasonable size—from classical topics like philosophy and mathematics to relative newcomers like computer science and gender studies.

The range of disciplines entails one obvious challenge. With respect to topics like anthropology or geology, many students will have little background or may not even have heard of the term—and so the write-up has to begin with “the basics.” With respect to other academic disciplines, students may already have a limited but misleading conception: geography is not principally about maps, but rather about “time,” “change,” “connections,” and “people”; economics is not principally about making a killing on the stock market but can help one understand the art market; history is as much about ordinary people as about Napoleon or Lincoln.

Writing frankly, I don’t know to what extent incoming college students will have the patience to read through such a book. (As I quip, with reference to Richard Light’s bestselling book Making the Most of College, parents buy it for their children but may be more likely to read it than will their children.) But on the assumption that at least some will leaf through it, I tried to put myself in the place of a freshman at Dartmouth, Pomona, or the University of Chicago.

As a hypothetical youthful reader, I’d be interested principally in two questions:

1) Does the focus on this subject interest me?

2) How do experts in this subject approach their scholarly work?

Unless the topic grabs my interest, it’s unlikely that I’ll want to take a course in it, except perhaps to fulfill some kind of distribution requirement. But if it’s only the topic that seduces me, then I may well be frustrated when I learn what it is that disciplinarians actually do every day.

In that spirit, I especially valued the chapter on art history. Not only did author Ada Cohen reproduce several diverse and riveting visual presentations, ranging from Mycenaean figures of the fourteenth century B.C. to quasi-abstract paintings from the mid-twentieth century; she also introduced and unfolded the questions that she would ask of these diverse depictions and made eye-opening comparisons across time and space. I think I could well decide, after a chapter or a lecture like this, whether I wanted to study art history.

In contrast, I was less satisfied with the chapter on African American studies because it focused almost entirely on the fact of racism in American history—incredibly important, to be sure—but did little to indicate what kinds of methods or perspectives are taken and insights gained. Lest this be seen as a critique of “area studies,” which are a relatively recent importation into the academy, the chapter on Women’s and Gender Studies was more satisfying: it surveys origins, methods, and major questions—including lots of examples of concepts that have been developed—and ongoing debates. I could confidently decide whether I’d like to explore that topic further.

As a now older reader, I compared topics about which I know a lot (psychology, that’s my training) and ones that I know little about (several of the physical sciences). The chapter on psychology certainly reviewed some of the most compelling studies, findings, and phenomena in that field, but I wish that the chapter had fewer “wows” and more discussion of how these phenomena were investigated and what disputes and mysteries remain. (As one who has taught psychology at various times, it’s best to discourage students who think that the discipline will necessarily illuminate their own troubles rather than inform them about how rats navigate mazes and how to control one variable at a time in an experiment.) As one who is married to a psychologist, I wonder whether students would appreciate the mealtime banter between Ellen and me (e.g. “Clearly the control group wasn’t really a control group”) or whether they would scoot as quickly as possible to another table.

I was also frustrated by the chapter on English (about which we all think we know a lot); English at the college level has become so sprawling that I was left wondering what, if anything, is left out. Of course, that state of affairs may be explained in part by the fact that nowadays, teachers of English are often required to teach everything from Chaucer to composition. But presumably that is not what initially attracted these scholars to the field or motivated them to pursue advanced studies.

Turning to the many areas about which I am ignorant, the chapter on physics did well presenting intriguing phenomena and illustrating how physicists think of them. It covered a wide range of phenomena—from easily graspable ones (like what causes ripples on the surface of a body of water) to far more elusive ones (such as why electrons are both wave-like and particle-like, a central mystery of quantum mechanics). But the chapter was twice as long as most others—which physicists would probably think is fair! As for discussions that did not exceed the “page limit,” I was especially engaged by the chapter on astronomy. Author Ryan Hickox grabbed my attention by reminding me of the many objects that we observe in the sky by eye, telescope, or inference and how we map them in various kinds of displays. I loved the section “A Night in the Life of an Astronomer.” If I were decades younger, I’d take or audit the course in person or online.

I applaud editor Rockmore for taking on this challenge. Admittedly, he got off on the wrong foot by misnaming art historian E. H. Gombrich in the second line of the introduction as W. H. Gombrich—a mistake that no scholar in the humanities would make. But for those readers who made it to page 45, Ernst Gombrich is correctly identified. I note that a scholar in the humanities might make an analogous mistake about a scientist.

Nowadays, of course, the pursuit of specific disciplines is undergoing much criticism. On one side, we are asked to study those things that will monetize into jobs—which most non-STEM disciplines are unlikely to do. From another angle, buoyed by search engines on the Internet, we are encouraged to pursue interdisciplinary topics or just pursue questions that interest us, whatever the method. I can see validity in those arguments.

But wait! In preparation for the year 2000, I was asked by a pundit to mention the greatest human invention of the last 2000 years. While I quipped that the answer was “classical music,” I noted that a better answer would be “the scholarly disciplines.” And that’s because, as a species, we did not evolve to create linguistics or ecology or even history or physics. These are human cultural inventions—precious in every way—which might well never have been invented, let alone have become the center of education in much of the world for the ensuing centuries. And so we should acknowledge their preciousness—in the best sense of that term—and endeavor to keep them and build on them. This collection of essays is a contribution to that human challenge.

Reference: Dan Rockmore (ed.), What Are the Arts and Sciences?: A Guide for the Curious. Dartmouth College Press, 2017.

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