The Humanities, the Sciences, and the Nature of Education

Over the last couple of months, Steven Pinker and Leon Wieseltier have been trading shots in a debate about the relationship between the sciences and the humanities. Pinker, a distinguished scientist whose work ranges from linguistics to cognitive psychology, kicked things off with an essay in The New Republic titled, “Science is Not Your Enemy.” This essay was published with a video response by Wieseltier, the The New Republic’s longstanding literary editor, already embedded. It was less than illuminating. A little while later, Wieseltier published a more formal response, which someone unfortunately titled, “Crimes Against the Humanities.” A little over a week ago, both Pinker and Wieseltier produced their final volleys in “Science v. the Humanities, Round III.”

I’ll spare you a play-by-play, or blow-by-blow as the case may be. If you’re interested, you can click over and read each essay. You might also want to take a look at Daniel Dennett’s comments on the initial exchange. The best I can do by way of summary is this: Pinker is encouraging embattled humanists to relax their suspicions and recognize the sciences as friends and ally from which they can learn a great deal. Wieseltier believes that any “consilience” with the sciences on the part of the humanities will amount to a surrender to an imperialist foe rather than a collaboration with an equal partner.

The point of contention, once some of the mildly heated rhetoric is accounted for, seems to be the terms of the relationship between the two sets of disciplines. Both agree that the sciences and the humanities should not be hermetically sealed off from one another, but they disagree about the conditions and fruitfulness of their exchanges.

If we must accept the categories, I think of myself as a humanist with interests that include the sciences. I’m generally predisposed to agree with Wieseltier to a certain extent, yet I found myself doing so rather tepidly. I can’t quite throw myself behind his defense of the humanities. Nor, however, can I be as sanguine as Pinker about the sort of consilience he imagines.

What I can affirm with some confidence is also the point Pinker and Wieseltier might agree upon: neither serious humanistic knowledge nor serious scientific knowledge appears to be flourishing in American culture. But then again, this surmise is mostly based on anecdotal evidence. I’d want to make this claim more precise and ground it in more substantive evidence.

That said, Pinker and Wieseltier both appear to have the professional sciences and humanities primarily view. My concern, however, is not only with the professional caste of humanists or scientists. My concern is also with the rest of us, myself included: those who are not professors or practitioners (strictly speaking), but who, despite our non-professional status, by virtue of our status as human beings seek genuine encounters with truth, goodness, and beauty.

To frame the matter in this way breaks free of the binary opposition that fuels the science/humanities wars. There is, ultimately, no zero-sum game for truth, goodness, and beauty, if these are what we’re after. The humanities and the sciences amount to a diverse set of paths, each, at their best, leading to a host of vantage points from which we might perceive the world truly, apprehend its goodness, and enjoy its beauty. Human culture would be a rather impoverished and bleak affair were only a very few of these path available to us.

I want to believe that most of us recognize all of this intuitively. The science/humanities binary is, in fact, a rather modern development. Distinctions among the various fields of human knowledge do have an ancient pedigree, of course. And it is also true that these various fields were typically ranked within a hierarchy that privileged certain forms of knowledge over others. However, and I’m happy to be corrected on this point, the ideal was nonetheless an openness to all forms of knowledge and a desire to integrate these various forms into a well-rounded understanding of the cosmos.

It was this ideal that, during the medieval era, yielded the first universities. It was this ideal, too, that animated the pursuit of the liberal arts, which entailed both humanistic and scientific disciplines (although to put it that way is anachronistic): grammar, logic, rhetoric, mathematics, music, geometry, and astronomy. The well-trained mind was to be conversant with each of these.

All well and good, you may say, but it seems as though seekers of truth, goodness, and beauty are few and far between. Hence, for instance, Pinker’s and Wieseltier’s respective complaints. The real lesson, after all, of their contentious exchange, one which Wieseltier seems to take at the end of last piece, is this: While certain professional humanists and scientists bicker about the relative prestige of their particular tribe, the cultural value of both humanistic and scientific knowledge diminishes.

Why might this be the case?

Here are a couple of preliminary thoughts–not quite answers, mind you–that I think relevant to the discussion.

1. Sustaining wonder is critical. 

The old philosophers taught that philosophy, the pursuit of wisdom, began with wonder. Wonder is something that we have plenty of as children, but somehow, for most of us anyway, the supply seems to run increasingly dry as we age. I’m sure that there are many reasons for this unfortunate development, but might it be the case that professional scientists and humanists both are partly to blame? And, so as not to place myself beyond criticism, perhaps professional teachers of the sciences and humanities are also part of the problem. Are we cultivating wonder, or are we complicit in its erosion?

2. Eduction is not merely the transmission of information

To borrow a formulation from T.S. Eliot: Information, that is an assortment of undifferentiated facts, is not the same as knowledge; and knowledge is not yet wisdom. One may, for example, have memorized all sorts of random historical facts, but that does not make one a historian. One may have learned a variety of mathematical operations or geometrical theorems, but that does not make one a mathematician. To say that one understands a particular discipline or field of knowledge is not necessarily to know every fact assembled under the purview of that field. Rather it is to be able to see the world through the perspective of that field. A mathematician is one who is able to see the world and to think mathematically. A historian is one who is able to see the world and to think historically.

Wonder, then, is not sustained by the accumulation of facts. It is sustained by the opening up of new vistas–historical, philosophical, mathematical, scientific, etc.–on reality that continually reveal its depth, complexity, and beauty.

Maybe it’s also the case that wonder must be sustained by love. Philosophy, to which wonder ought to lead, is etymologically the “love of wisdom.” Absent that love, the wonder dissipates and leaves behind no fruit. This possibility brings to mind a passage from an Iris Murdoch novel, The Sovereignty of Good, in which the main character describes the work of learning Russian:

“I am confronted by an authoritative structure which commands my respect. The task is difficult and the goal is distant and perhaps never entirely attainable. My work is a progressive revelation of something which exists independently of me…. Love of Russian leads me away from myself towards something alien to me, something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal. The honesty and humility required of the student — not to pretend to know what one does not know — is the preparation for the honesty and humility of the scholar who does not even feel tempted to suppress the fact which damns his theory.”

We should get it out of our heads that education is chiefly or merely about training minds. It must address the whole human person. The mind, yes, but also the heart, the eyes, the ears, and the hands. It is a matter of character and habits and virtues and loves. The most serious reductionism is that which reduces education to the transfer of information. In which case, it makes little difference whether that information is of the humanistic or scientific variety.

As Hubert Dreyfuss pointed out serval years ago in his discussion of online education, the initial steps of skill acquisition most closely resemble the mere transmission of information. But passing beyond these early stages of education in any discipline involves the presence of another human being for a variety of significant reasons. Not least of these is the fact that we must come to love what we are learning and our loves tend to be formed in the context of personal relationships. They are caught, as it were, from another who has already come to love a certain kind of knowledge or a certain way of approaching the world embedded in a particular discipline.

What then is the sum of this meandering post? First, the sciences and the humanities are partners, but not primarily partners in the accomplishment of their own respective goals. They are partners in the education of human beings that are alive to fullness of the world they inhabit. Secondly, if that work is to yield fruit, then education in both the sciences and the humanities must be undertaken with a view to full complexity of the human person and the motives that drive and sustain the meaningful pursuit of knowledge. And that, I know, is far easier said than done.

Don’t Be a Relay in the Network

Back when the Machine was the dominant technological symbol, a metaphor arose to articulate the fear that individual significance was being sacrificed to large-scale, impersonal social forces: it was the fear of becoming “a cog in the machine.”

The metaphor is in need of an update.

This train of thought (speaking of archaic metaphors) began when I read the following paragraph from Leon Wieseltier’s recent commencement address at Brandeis University:

In the digital universe, knowledge is reduced to the status of information. Who will any longer remember that knowledge is to information as art is to kitsch-–that information is the most inferior kind of knowledge, because it is the most external? A great Jewish thinker of the early Middle Ages wondered why God, if He wanted us to know the truth about everything, did not simply tell us the truth about everything. His wise answer was that if we were merely told what we need to know, we would not, strictly speaking, know it. Knowledge can be acquired only over time and only by method.

It was that last phrase that stayed with me: knowledge can only be acquired by time and method. I was already in fundamental agreement with Wieseltier’s distinction between information and knowledge, and his prescription of time and method as the path toward knowledge also seemed just about right.

It also seemed quite different than what ordinarily characterized my daily encounter with digital information. For the most part, I’m doing well if I keep on top of all that comes my way each day through a variety of digital channels and then pass along – via this blog, Twitter, FB, or now Tumblr – items that I think are, or ought to be of interest to the respective audiences on each of those platforms. Blog, reblog. Like, share. Tweet, retweet. Etc., etc., etc.

Read, then discard or pass along. Repeat. That’s my default method. It’s not, I suspect, what Wieseltier had in mind. There is, given the sheer volume of information one takes in, a veneer of learnedness to these habits. But there is, in fact, very little thought involved, or judgment. Time under these circumstances is not experienced as the pre-condition of knowledge, it is rather the enemy of relevance. The meme-cycle, like the news-cycle is unforgivingly brief. And method – understood as the deliberate, sustained, and, yes, methodical pursuit of deep understanding of a given topic – is likewise out of step with the rhythms of digital information.

Of course, there is nothing about digital technology that demands or necessitate’s this kind of relationship to information or knowledge. But while it is not demanded or necessitated, it is facilitated and encouraged. It is always easier to attune oneself to the dominant rhythms than it is to serve as the counterpoint. And what the dominant rhythm of digital culture encourages is not that we be cogs in the machine, but rather relays in the network.

We are relays in a massive network of digital information. Information comes to me and I send it out to you and you pass it along to someone else, and so on, day in and day out, moment by moment. In certain circles it might even be put this way: we are neurons within a global mind. But, of course, there is no global mind in any meaningful sense that we should care about. It is a clever, fictive metaphor bandied about by pseudo-mystical techno-utopians.

The mind that matter is yours and mine, and their health requires that we resist the imperatives of digital culture and re-inject time and method into our encounters with information. It begins, I think, with a simple “No” to the impulse to quickly skim-read and either share or discard. May be even prior to this, we must also renounce the tacit pressure to keep up with it all (as if that were possible anyway) and the fear of missing out. And this should be followed by a willingness to invest deep attentiveness, further research, and even contemplation over time to those matters that call for it. Needless to say, not all information justifies this sort of cognitive investment. But all of us should be able to transition from the nearly passive reception and transmission of information to genuine knowledge when it is warranted.

At their best, digital technologies offer tremendous resources to the life of the mind, but only if we cultivate the discipline to use these technologies against their own grain.


[So maybe "very light" doesn't really mean "non-existent."]

This paragraph is from yet another Thomas Friedman op-ed gushing over the revolutionary, disruptive, transformational possibilities MOOCs present:

“Therefore, we have to get beyond the current system of information and delivery — the professorial “sage on the stage” and students taking notes, followed by a superficial assessment, to one in which students are asked and empowered to master more basic material online at their own pace, and the classroom becomes a place where the application of that knowledge can be honed through lab experiments and discussions with the professor.”

Okay, now read the same paragraph with one tiny alteration:

“Therefore, we have to get beyond the current system of information and delivery — the professorial “sage on the stage” and students taking notes, followed by a superficial assessment, to one in which students are asked and empowered to master more basic material [from books] at their own pace, and the classroom becomes a place where the application of that knowledge can be honed through lab experiments and discussions with the professor.”

So what am I missing? Or, is it retrograde of me to ask?

It seems to me that the cheapest, most effective tool to fulfill the model he envisions may still be the book, not the MOOC.

MOOCs: Market Solution for Market Problems?

Of the writing about MOOCs there seems to be no end … but here is one more thought. Many of the proponents of MOOCs and online education* in general couch their advocacy in the language of competition, market forces, disrupting** the educational cartels***, etc. They point, as well, to the rising costs of a college education — costs which, in their view, are unjustifiable because they do not yield commensurate rewards.**** MOOCs introduce innovation, efficiency, technological entrepreneurship, cost-effectiveness and they satisfy consumer demand. The market to the rescue. But when you look closely at the named culprits these proponents of MOOCs blame for rising costs, they include frivolous spending on items that are not directly related to education such as luxury dorms, massive sporting complexes, state-of-the-art student recreational centers, out-of-control administrative expansion, etc. But why are colleges spending so much money on such things? Because the market logic triumphed. Students became consumers and colleges had to compete for them by offering a host of amenities that, in truth, had little to do with education. Market solutions for market problems, then.***** MOOCs are just the extension of a logic that triumphed long ago. On this score, I’d suggest the universities need to recover something of their medieval heritage, rather than heed the siren songs of the digital age.


*I resisted, in the name of the semblance of objectivity, the urge to place ironical quotation marks around education.

**I resisted, in the name of decency, the urge to curse out loud as I typed disruption.

***Heretofore known as universities.

****These rewards are, of course, always understood to be pecuniary.

*****This is the hidden genius of disruption, brought to you by many of the same folks who gave us technological fixes for technological problems.

Borg Complex Case Files 2

UPDATE: See the Borg Complex primer here.


Alright, let’s review. A Borg Complex is exhibited by writers and pundits whenever you can sum up their message with the phrase: “Resistance is futile.”

The six previously identified symptoms of a Borg Complex are as follows:

1. Makes grandiose, but unsupported claims for technology

2. Uses the term Luddite a-historically and as a casual slur

3. Pays lip service to, but ultimately dismisses genuine concerns

4. Equates resistance or caution to reactionary nostalgia

5. Starkly and matter-of-factly frames the case for assimilation

6. Announces the bleak future for those who refuse to assimilate

In an effort to further refine our diagnostic instruments, I am now adding two more related symptoms to the list. The first of these arises from a couple of cases submitted by Nick Carr and is summarized as follows:

7. Expresses contemptuous disregard for the achievements of the past

Consider this claim by Tim O’Reilly highlighted by Carr:

“I don’t really give a shit if literary novels go away. … the novel as we know it today is only a 200-year-old construct. And now we’re getting new forms of entertainment, new forms of popular culture.”

Well, there you have it. This same statement serves to illustrate the second symptom I’m introducing:

8. Refers to historical parallels only to dismiss present concerns.

This symptom identifies historical precedents as a way of saying, “Look, people worried about stuff like this before and they survived, so there’s nothing to be concerned about now.” It sees all concerns through the lens of Chicken Little. The sky never falls. I would suggest that the Boy Who Cried Wolf is the better parable. The wolf sometimes shows up.

To this list of now eight symptoms, we might also add two Causes.

1. Self-interest, usually commercial (ranging from more tempered to crass)

2. Fatalistic commitment to technological determinism (in pessimistic and optimistic varieties)

Now let’s consider some more cases related to education, a field that is particularly susceptible to Borg Complex claims. In a recent column, Thomas Friedman gushed over MOOCs:

“Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty — by providing them an affordable education to get a job or improve in the job they have. Nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems. And nothing has more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education than the massive open online course, or MOOC, platforms that are being developed by the likes of Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and companies like Coursera and Udacity.”

These are high, indeed utopian hopes, and in their support Friedman offered two heartwarming anecdotes of MOOC success. In doing so, he committed the error of tech-uptopians (modeled on what Pascal took to be the error of Stoicism): Believing the wonderful use to which a technology can be put, will be the use to which it is always put.

Friedman wrapped up his post with the words of M.I.T. president, L. Rafael Reif, “There is a new world unfolding and everyone will have to adapt.”

And there it is — Borg Complex.

In long piece in The Awl (via Nathan Jurgenson), Maria Bustillos discusses an online exchange on the subject of MOOCs between Aaron Bady and Clay Shirky. Take the time to read the whole thing if you’re curious/worried about MOOCs. But here is Shirky on the difference between he and Bady: “Aaron and I agree about most of the diagnosis; we disagree about the prognosis. He thinks these trends are reversible, and I don’t; Udacity could go away next year and the damage is already done.”

Once again — Borg Complex.

At this juncture it’s worth asking, as Jurgenson did in sending me this last case, “Is he wrong?”

Is it not the case that folks who exhibit a Borg Complex often turn out to be right? Isn’t it inevitable that their vision will play out regardless of what we say or do?

My initial response is … maybe. As I’ve said before, a Borg Complex diagnosis is neutral as to the eventual veracity of the claims. It is more about an attitude toward technology in the present that renders the claims, if they are realized, instances of self-fulfilling prophecy.

The appearance of inevitability is a trick played by our tendency to make a neat story out of the past. Historians know this better than most. What looks like inevitability to us is only a function of zooming so far out that all contingencies fade from view. But in the fine-grain texture of lived experience, we know that there are countless contingencies that impinge upon the unfolding of history. It is also a function of forgetfulness. If only we had a catalog of all that we were told was inevitable that didn’t finally transpire. We only remember successes and then we tell their story as if they had to succeed all along, and this lends claims of inevitability an undeserved plausibility.

One other consideration: It is always worth asking, Who stands to profit from tales of technological inevitability?

Consider the conclusion of a keynote address delivered at the Digital-Life-Design Conference in Munich by Max Levchin:

“So to conclude: I believe that in the next decades we will see huge number of inherently analog processes captured digitally. Opportunities to build businesses that process this data and improve lives will abound.”

The “analog processes” Levchin is talking about are basically the ordinary aspects of our human lives that have yet to be successfully turned into digital data points. Here’s Carr on the vision Levchin lays out:

“This is the nightmare world of Big Data, where the moment-by-moment behavior of human beings — analog resources — is tracked by sensors and engineered by central authorities to create optimal statistical outcomes. We might dismiss it as a warped science fiction fantasy if it weren’t also the utopian dream of the Max Levchins of the world. They have lots of money and they smell even more: ‘I believe that in the next decades we will see huge number of inherently analog processes captured digitally. Opportunities to build businesses that process this data and improve lives will abound.’ It’s the ultimate win-win: you get filthy rich by purifying the tribe.”

Commenting on the same address and on Carr’s critique, Alan Jacobs captures the Borg-ish nature of Levchin’s rhetoric:

“And Levchin makes his case for these exciting new developments in a very common way: ‘This is going to add a huge amount of new kinds of risks. But as a species, we simply must take these risks, to continue advancing, to use all available resources to their maximum.’ Levchin doesn’t really spell out what the risks are — though Nick Carr does — because he doesn’t want us to think about them. He just wants us to think about the absolutely unquestionable ‘must’ of using ‘all available resources to their maximum.’ That ‘advance’ in that direction might amount to ‘retreat’ in actual human flourishing does not cross his mind, because it cannot. Efficiency in the exploitation of ‘resources’ is his only canon.”

We “must” do this. It is inevitable but that this will happen. Resistance is futile.

Except that very often it isn’t. There are choices to be made. A figure no less identified with technological determinism than Marshall McLuhan reminded us: “There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.” The handwaving rhetoric that I’ve called a Borg Complex is resolutely opposed to just such contemplation, and very often for the worst of motives. By naming it my hope is that it can be more readily identified, weighed, and rejected.

Elsewhere McLuhan said, “the only alternative is to understand everything that is going on, and then neutralize it as much as possible, turn off as many buttons as you can, and frustrate them as much as you can … Anything I talk about is almost certainly to be something I’m resolutely against, and it seems to me the best way of opposing it is to understand it, and then you know where to turn off the button.”

Understanding is a form of resistance. So remember, carry on with the work of intelligent, loving resistance where discernment and wisdom deem it necessary.


This is a third in series of Borg Complex posts, you can read previous installments here.

I’ve set up a tumblr to catalog instances of Borg Complex rhetoric here. Submissions welcome.