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|Skyler: Right and wrong aren’t that hard to figure out, and we simply don’t need snobs sitting around pretending they know better than the rest of us what is obvious. . . .
Let’s be honest, folks. If you get an “education” that only covers soft topics like English and history and philosophy where any answer can be correct depending on how you frame it, you’re not educated so much as you’re good at selling a line. . . .
Anyone can study liberal arts. It’s easy because there is no right or wrong answer. . .
The passages that I have quoted from two of Skyler’s comments on the provocative piece Online Training vs. Online Education that I posted on Saturday do not do full justice to his position. Read in full context what he has to say does not involve as categorical a rejection of philosophy, literature, and history as these passages might suggest, and I in fact agree with him that a liberal education that excludes math and science is woefully incomplete — but it is worth saying at the outset that the liberal arts, as traditionally understood, included math and science and that, at Hillsdale College, math and science are central to the core curriculum. That having been said, I am indebted to Skyler for his pungent comments, and I apologize for taking them out of context. In the latter guise, they are, however, a provocation, and that I cannot resist.
Although I will take issue with the remarks quoted above, let me begin by saying that they do point to something quite real. Modern science is rooted in mathematics. It presupposes that Galileo was right when he suggested that the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics. As Plato observed long ago, there is a precision to mathematics that cannot be achieved in any of the human sciences. This is not, however, because for the questions raised in the humanities “there is no right or wrong answer.” It is rather because Blaise Pascal — a great scientist and an even greater mathematician — was right when he distinguished l’esprit de geometrie from l’esprit de finesse. In some spheres, we measure, and our measurements can be precise and our conclusions possess a species of certitude. In other spheres, we exercise judgment, and, while our judgment can be good or bad, it can almost never be precise and almost never be certain because the subject does not admit precision or certitude.
Should I marry this woman? Would she make a good wife and a fine mother? In advance, I can never know for sure. I can only guess. But my guess can be an educated guess or it can be ill-informed. I can get to know her. I can learn about her past conduct. I can meet her family. I can introduce her to my friends and later ask them what they think. We can go through Pre-Cana together. I can interrogate myself. Am I blind? Am I driven by passion? Do I have my eyes open? I can puzzle over her aspirations. But when I have done everything that can be done, I will have to exercise judgment — l’esprit de finesse. Moreover, I can do everything right and still be wrong because, in matters moral and prudential, right and wrong are, in fact, quite hard to figure out. True clarity is achieved, for the most part anyway, only in hindsight.
What I have said about this matter applies with equal force to a great many of the decisions we have to make. We may not have to deliberate as to whether we should commit adultery or steal, but we do have to do so with regard to how we conduct a political campaign, interpret incomplete intelligence data concerning the Iranian nuclear program, handle at work our superiors and subordinates, and rear our children.
This is where the study of philosophy, literature, and history can be of great use. I do not mean to say that one cannot learn judgment and discernment in the school of hard knocks, and I most certainly do not mean to say that one cannot learn an enormous amount from reading good books on one’s own. Consider the education that Winston Churchill provided for himself — as described in My Early Life. There are any number of ways to skin this particular cat.
I would only insist that philosophy, literature, and history can help immeasurably and that one can profit from the help of an instructor. Put crudely, philosophy can help us consider from an abstract perspective how we should live our lives; literature can help us consider this crucial question from a variety of concrete perspectives; and history can help us do so from a variety of socio-political perspectives. After all, we do not make all of the choices we make in isolation from our contemporaries. Some of these choices are collective — whether, alas, we like it or not.
Literature (including, of course, films) and history (including its bastard offspring political science and economics) invite us to put ourselves imaginatively in situations we have not yet encountered and to ruminate. What did these characters and these historical figures do when faced with such-and-such a situation, and did they handle it well? How could they have done better? How could they have done worse? Is their situation in any way analogous to my own?
You may wish to respond to me that colleges and universities today offer students little help in this regard — that historians are more focused on subjects like basket-weaving during the American Revolution than on subjects like the justification for our break with Britain, that literature professors prefer teaching pornography to teaching Shakespeare. And I will readily admit that the humanities have gone off the deep end — that the professoriate is more interested in purveying a crazed politics and in personal self-indulgence than in providing occasions for rumination and reflection. There is a strange mixture of preposterous moralism (always the enemy of genuine morality) and nihilism ascendant in the academy today, and one is apt to learn from a class more about one’s professor than about the subject he (or she) purports to teach. Today, it is all true. Alas.
But the great books and the telling events and developments remain. And hidden away in the nooks and crannies of the worst of our modern universities are scholars and teachers who read Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Shakespeare, Milton, Jane Austen, Herodotus, and Thucydides in the proper fashion — not as objects to be turned inside out in light of the latest academic fashion but as challenges to reigning opinion and as potential sources for a wisdom we lack. And hidden away in history departments and even, God help us, in some political science and economic departments are scholars and teachers who have fertile minds, who are deeply interested in large issues and great events, and who are not deluded that one can achieve in the social sciences the certitude and precision possible in the natural sciences.
In the academy, there were always dullards and drips, but there have always been real teachers as well. Students must make it a point to find them and to exploit them. If you have children, tell them as much.
When I was at the University of Tulsa, I used to teach a great many prospective engineers (most of them prospective petroleum engineers). One of them, a fellow who stumbled into an upper-level history seminar on Thucydides without ever having taken a history course, was the best student I encountered in my twenty-four years there — exceptionally bright, quick to learn, and deeply thoughtful.
A fair proportion of these young people, however, were deeply hostile to the humanities. For them, that which could not be quantified did not exist. They were in my course because of distribution requirements, and they resented the imposition on their time.
In my initial lecture, I tried to explain to them one fact of life. When they graduated from the engineering school, their skills as engineers would get them a job. If they advanced in the profession, however, they would soon find themselves managing other people — and what they learned in engineering school would not help them with that. There was more to the world they were entering than things subject to precise measurement. There were human beings, and in dealing with them they would be in need of judgment.
I often added that I had heard tell that even engineers got married, and to them I posed this question. When there was trouble in their marriages and when their children ran astray, what help could their engineering courses offer them?
There is, I would submit, a place for philosophy, literature, and history even in the curriculum of schools of engineering, business, accounting, and nursing, and it is no accident that law schools and medical schools expect applicants to have had a liberal education.Published in