A Defense of Liberal Education


(system) #1

[The following is a transcription of the handwritten journal entry I spent the latter portion of my afternoon writing:]

I have another strand of thought regarding this "Ven diagram of experience" idea [from earlier today in my journal]. Connect it with me, if you will, with the idea of a "liberal education."

There are many conflicting opinions out there regarding what is worth one's study. Some are disseminated by employers who passively comment on the value of real-world experience. Some come from students seeking to justify their preferred major, and forget that most any field is a respectable and active endeavor. Most remarks are promulgated, I think, by students who are exasperated at being required to learn things that do not interest them, i.e. for which they see no practical application for their lives or the world at large.

Take this, for example, which you might find reminiscent of some demented professor's idea of a precalculus exercise:

View Image

Most people probably look at this array of symbols and roll their eyes, internally recoiling from flashbacks to Algebra I. Just two years ago I would have felt the same way.

"Why do they make us take Calculus," I remember a friend complaining freshman year, "I don't need it for what I want to do with computers." Indeed, most programmer never use anything beyond some clever arithmetic and basic algebra, with a whole bunch of set theory fundamentals when it comes to databasing. Calculus? Yeah right.

I avoided math like the plague my last year of high school. Vague promises of far-distant applications in science and engineering are hardly enough to motivate a teenager to learn trigonometry identities. I still find myself surprised by people who take interest in pure mathematics from an early age, with vague hope of their work being useful to someone in the distant future.

I'm now a math major, largely because Calculus was just dog-gone cool, but also because I'm coming to see the real value of mathematics. The equation above, for example, is not a purposeless exercise: it is a "hyperbolic tangent" activation function, used in models of neuron activation for artificial neural networks -- which are a brilliant application of computing.

I only have a basic familiarity (two semesters) with Calculus. I've seen its magical ability to explain Physics (also two semesters), and now when I open up books and articles on "real" science I see that mathematics truly lives up to its nickname, "the language of science." "Biology's new microscope," they call it.

The point? I was "forced," give or take, to take some math classes as I entered college with vague ideas of a computer-related degree. Without math, I wouldn't even be able to consider going into Computational Intelligence research, or basically do anything else that's really cool. I could get a job doing coding and documentation, sure, and that would be nice, and it would be a contribution to society. But it would be a step short of my potential. Now, however, when I see math, I get excited, because I know those symbols denote something clever and advanced, and I know that I can speak the language (If somewhat haltingly -- I have a long ways to go yet).

Extending my anecdote, I think there is fodder in here for a defense of a liberal education in general. It is difficult, yes, to master a boring topic. Take History, for example. Many people lack the creative knack for finding such things relevant and intriguing. I an my friends are something of an anomaly for always seeking to connect what we learn to our current world and body of knowledge -- to show unconditional positive regard, if you will, for the ideas and facts that someone, somewhere is working hard to apply to the arts, science, or industry. And even we grow frustrated with esotericism. Most people prefer a smaller world in which the activities of the rest of humanity are irrelevant, and in which anyone who demonstrates thinking spunk is a threat for being different -- a source of cognitive dissonance -- and must be dismissed, or at least apathetically teased, for being a "nerd."

My bitterness here betrays what I am reacting against when I say I'm attempting a defense of liberal education. Experience is a grand thing. I couldn't disagree more with Mr. Sherlock Holmes when he explains to Watson that:

"I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stack it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work." -- A Study in Scarlet, ch. 2.

This was Holmes' response upon Watson's discovery of his total ignorance of "the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the solar system." Now, Holmes does have a point, for as Doyle acknowledges in his documentation of Watson's preceding thought processes:

"Surely no man would work so hard or attain such precise information unless he had some definite end in view. Desultory readers are seldom remarkable for the exactness of their learning. No man burdens his mind with small matters unless he has some very good reason for doing so."

Holmes concludes the encounter sounding a trite miffed:

"What the deuce is it to me?" he interrupted impatiently: "you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work."

How romantic.

My mind works like a jumbled up attic. It is largely disorganized, being guided by a broad intuition. I take many, many things into account when I think, and intuitive emotion is almost the only way to think comprehensively. Images and feelings, words coming after-the-fact (Good book on this: Sparks of Genius: The Thirteen Thinking Tools of the World's Most Creative People (2001), by Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein). Ignoring things that don't touch me directly is a vice, because often if I learn more about them I'll realize the topic does have real value. This is the heart of the book learning vs. experience dichotomy: just reading won't give you a genuine idea of how important something is unless you have something real to relate it to.

I try to make the most of all my experiences -- filing both book and real-world encounters into the jumbled attic, where a network of relationships can be built up, tying everything together. For example, I took note of the unfamiliar term "desultory" just now, seeing that it could be more useful than harsher terms like "apathetic" or "recalcitrant." I looked it up in Webster's, and have handed it over to my intuitive attic for future reference. And yes, I'd underlined those passages in Holmes months ago, recognizing them as useful to a discussion such as this one.

This entry itself makes an excellent example of a pattern of thought with is anti-Holmesian and displays one way that a liberal educational philosophy in one's life can yield fruit. It is not infrequent, when I write, for me to draw connections between multiple and widely disparate books, events, and ideas to further express my point. Here I have drawn upon two books (And a third is brewing in my mind), an anecdote from my experience (Mathematics), and some general references early on, also based on my experience ("Employers," "justifying," and "exasperated" students, respectively). I make a habit of keeping these things in my mind, because they are useful in discussions that seek to bring clarity to life and how one should conduct one's thoughts and actions -- which, then, is very practical.

All this came to mind while reading the introduction to the mathematically intense Computational Intelligence: An Introduction (2007) by Andries Engelbrecht, but the actual third book I wanted to reference is a little more relevant to this whole general curiosity vs. practical focus discussion:

"Should priority be given to research driven by the pure 'curiosity' of the specialists, or more to the development and practical application of already known scientific results? Moreover, which of the hundreds of specialties -- from the study of black holes in astrophysics to problems of cognitive psychology in early childhood to vast problems concerning the biomedical research community -- should be favored?" -- Gerald Holton, "What Kinds of Science Are Worth Supporting? A New Look, and a New Mode," The Great Ideas Today 1998, p. 108.

A highly intriguing article, Holton explores the political considerations of fiscal support for science in ways reminiscent of a student's conflict over selecting a major or career.

As an aside, the Great Ideas series is the yearbook to Britannica's Great Books of the Western World, a collection of classics specifically designed to provide the foundational framework for a liberal education.

I begin to lose track of my purpose for this entry. I suppose I mean to establish my perception that, while specific focus is imperative to getting anything done, consistently seeking out new experiences and widening your horizon is also important to be a creative, well-rounded individual, to keep a growing body of experience to apply to life's varied encounters and, like math did for me, to open your awareness to opportunities or solutions you may not have otherwise been aware of.

Holmes strategy sucks, to be frank, even if his ISTJ approach still pulls out miraculous "deductions." He will never see past his own nose, always stuck in a local maximum of what he believes is the "application of already known scientific results." Like an IT guy in an all Microsoft shop, he may be missing out on half the tools available to him. I prefer to pretend my brain has "elastic walls and can distend to any extent" (Which Holmes explicitly says is false).

Hmm. "Distend." That's a cool word. I think I'll go look it up...


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/900